Waiting to Die: The Cruel Phenomenon of "Death Row Syndrome"


Michael J. Carter, IPS News

November 10, 2008




SEATTLE, Washington, Nov 4 (IPS) The length of time convicted murderers wait for their execution is steadily rising in the U.S., raising concerns that more will suffer from the mental illness known as "death row syndrome.


The United States' 3,300 death row inmates can now expect to wait an average of 12 years from the day of their sentencing to death by lethal injection or electric chair, a doubling of the time gap in the mid-1980s, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice.

This increase is mainly due to mandatory appeals introduced after capital punishment was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976 after a four-year suspension. These reforms have led to lengthier appeals, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center.

The 667 death row inmates in California can expect to wait nearly 20 years.


California's last execution was in January 2006. A month later, a judge halted the execution of Michael Morales, already on death row for 25 years, calling for measures to ensure no unnecessary pain during a state killing. The temporary moratorium put in place then has

not yet been lifted.


In other death penalty states, inmates have also sometimes waited a quarter of a century or more to know the date of their execution, reprieve or exoneration.


On Sept. 16, Jack Alderman was executed in Georgia for killing his wife in 1974 after spending 33 years on death row.


In April, Renardo Knight had spent nearly 25 years on death row before his conviction was reversed due to evidence tampering.


Last year, Carey Dean Moore was moved from Nebraska's death row after waiting 27 years for the electric chair. The state's Supreme Court ruled this method of execution -- the only one on its statute books -- was unconstitutional.


Typically, death row inmates wait out the years for their punishment alone in solitary confinement, spending 23 hours a day in their cells. They are excluded from prison training and recreation programs. Visits and exercise privileges are restricted. A few states, such as

North Carolina, California and Georgia, allow varying levels of communication between death row inmates.


"There is a distinct syndrome associated with solitary confinement," Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist and former professor at the Harvard Medical School of Psychiatry, told IPS.


In published research he has found that in the most sever cases this can lead to "agitation", "psychotic" and "self-destructive" behavior. The healthy "often" became mental ill. There was a "severe" deterioration in the condition of those already mentally sick.

Grassian said the long appeals process of the condemned was "most worrisome". "There is an enormous agony in endlessly, and helplessly, waiting while others decide whether you live or die. "Generally, over time, the inmate learns he cannot afford to actually befriend

his fellows; they keep disappearing into the death chamber. The horror of all that, the endless tedium and tension, often proves unbearable."


Rights activists say an illustration of the mental damage being done is seen in the case of Raymond Riles, on the Texas death row for the past 33 years. No execution date has been set because he suffers from delusions and paranoia. But in 1975, there were no mental

health barriers in the way of his sentencing. They also suggest "death row syndrome" may have played a role in the decision of 131 death row inmates since 1976 abandoning their appeals and "volunteering" for a quick execution. "Many inmates in these circumstances

cannot stand it any longer, fire their attorneys, drop their appeals, and hence "volunteer" for execution, said Grassian.


Seventy-five percent of these "volunteers" had a history of mental illness, according to John Blume, professor of law at Cornell University.


Rights activists have also raised concerns at the difficulties inmates with "death row syndrome" may face when their appeals succeed and they are given a lesser sentence and transferred to cells in the general prison. Only Missouri does not segregate death row inmates

from the rest of the prison population. The problems of adaptation and regaining their mental health may be more acute when they are exonerated and leave prison. So far this year, four death row inmates have been exonerated, bringing to 130 the number since 1973.


Experts question the reasoning behind the austere, often mentally damaging conditions on death row. "The rational is that these inmates have nothing to lose and therefore they are potentially the greatest security risk," Grassian said. But it had been proven that they

were "less violent and disruptive than many other groups". Ronald Tabak, a New York-based lawyer experienced in capital punishment issues, agreed. "They tend to be less dangerous than other prisoners," he told IPS, adding: "There is no public sympathy for those

who are sentenced to death."


Despite the growing debate about the "death row syndrome", the Supreme Court has yet to hear a case on the issue.


But two justices -- Stephen Breyer and John Paul Stevens -- have questioned the constitutionality of the long delays between conviction and the carrying out of executions.


The issue was "an important undecided one", Breyer said in 1995 during a ruling on the case of Clarence Allen Lackey. Lackey, who was executed in 1997, served almost 20 years on death row before his sentence was carried out. So far this year, there have been

30 executions in the U.S., the most recent in Texas on Oct. 30.