When most people envision the moments leading up to an execution, they imagine last minute phone appeals waking judges from their slumber, family members of the victim(s) and the condemned arriving for closure in the black of night, and the faces of protestors illuminated by candles outside the prison.
At one time most executions were scheduled for 12:01 a.m. in the morning. One of the reasons for this seemingly odd hour was that it allowed the state ample time to deal with last-minute appeals and temporary stays of execution. In many states, death warrants are only legal for one day. If the execution is not carried out on the specified date, another warrant would be required.
For example, if any new evidence is discovered at the last minute that could prove the prisoner’s innocence or commute their sentence, a stay of execution may be court ordered until said evidence can be examined, which may cause a warrant to expire before it can be carried out.
To obtain a death warrant in the first place, the state’s governor, or the president if it’s a federal charge, signs an execution warrant. This warrant, which protects the executioner from being charged with murder, gives the state the green light to go ahead with the execution.
Once the warrant is in place the execution can move forward. As far as a midnight start (or finish, depending on how you look at it, I guess) time is concerned, only 15 out of the 34 states that have the death penalty still execute prisoners in the middle of the night.
Victims’ advocacy groups argue that midnight executions are needlessly stressful for the condemned — not that there’s any good time to be put to death. Corrections officials in states that still perform midnight executions counter that prisoners are far less likely to be violent or protest at that hour. They also point out the extra time available to deal with late appeals.
“We would argue things have worked as intended … in terms of the handling of the various groups, in terms of accommodating the various witnesses and in terms of ensuring security,” Tennessee Correction Commissioner George Little said.
But the states that have set earlier execution times report no such issues, including four of the five states that implement the death penalty most often: Texas, Florida, Virginia, and Oklahoma.
Texas changed its execution time from midnight to 6 p.m. (or later) in 1995 in an effort to make things easier on lawyers filing last minute appeals and the judges who would be ruling on them. The move was supported by federal judges, who had been suggesting such a change for years.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor pointed out that ruling on last-minute appeals in the middle of the night when you’ve been roused from a sound sleep isn’t an ideal situation. “Dispensing justice at that hour of the morning is difficult, to say the least, and we have an obligation … to give our best efforts in every one of these instances.”
Ohio stopped midnight executions in 2001 because doing so avoided having to shell out thousands of dollars in overtime pay to prison workers. So, yeah, there’s that.
Daytime executions were the norm for thousands of years. Life was cheap back in the old days, and public executions were akin to a Saturday matinee. Before the actual execution, the crowds were regaled with comedy acts and skits. In ancient Rome, watching people being torn limb from limb by lions at the Coliseum was just part of everyday life.
In the United States executions were public events from colonial times. Hanging was by far the most common method of capital punishment, and depending on the notoriety of the crime or criminal, sometimes tens of thousands of spectators would turn up to witness the execution. Drunkenness and mayhem often prevailed in the aftermath, moving many states to begin performing private hangings.
This concerned death penalty abolitionists, who believed exposure to the grim reality of execution would eventually lead to public outcry against it. As the 19th century progressed, many states began to pass laws against mandatory death sentences not so much out of compassion, but rather because juries were reluctant to convict knowing a guilty verdict meant certain death.
In 1890, the electric chair was introduced as a method of execution, and in 1924 the gas chamber made its debut. Both of these supposedly more humane methods of implementing the death penalty guaranteed most future executions would take place indoors and away from large crowds. The last public U.S. execution took place in 1936 in Owensboro, Kentucky in front of 20,000 spectators.
When you look at the big picture, only 21 of the world’s 195 countries implemented the death penalty in 2012. That’s seven fewer countries than a decade earlier, showing a downward global trend. In the Middle East, just four nations account for all the executions in the region. In the U.S., even though the death penalty is legal in 34 states, the South, Arizona, and Ohio definitely are most active execution-wise.
The Death penalty, no matter what time of day it’s implemented, remains a hot button issue in the United States. Only China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia execute more convicts than the U.S., and we’re leading the pack in the number of incarcerated prisoners. No other first world country even comes close to matching those numbers. Pretty sobering.