Q&A of the Day – Death Row & Executions – From the Federal Government to Florida
Each day I feature a listener question sent by one of these methods.
iHeartRadio: Use the Talkback feature – the microphone button on our station’s page in the iHeart app.
Today’s Entry: Submitted via talkback pertaining to federal executions carried out over the past 25 years.
Bottom Line: Today’s Q&A came on the back of something I mentioned in Wednesday’s Q&A, in discussing the role a governor plays in the extradition process of an individual within their state which is sought for prosecution by another. In the context of that conversation the topic was about whether DeSantis could stop a potential extradition of Donald Trump to New York if indicted by the Manhattan DA and resisted by Trump (in case you missed that story – the answer is crystal clear in the US Constitution – he could not stop any potential extradition – only delay one by a maximum of 60 days). I cited this as the most recent example of the effort being attempted: The last time there was even a delay in extradition from a state occurred in Rhode Island in 2011, when Governor Lincoln Chafee refused to honor an extradition request for a murder suspect because Rhode Island doesn’t allow for the death penalty, but the federal government does. Within a matter of months Chafee was forced by the feds to stand down and the suspect was transferred to their custody. The question also comes as the Florida Legislature is actively working on an overhaul of Florida’s law pertaining to the death penalty. Specifically, in the wake of one juror objecting to the death penalty in the sentencing case of the Stoneman Douglas attacker Nikolas Cruz, legislation has been advancing through committees which would allow for a two-thirds jury majority to be sufficient for a death penalty sentence (as compared to a unanimous decision currently). So, what about federal executions? When was the most recent one and how many have happened over the past 25 years?
The most recent federal execution took place on January 16th, 2021 – just four days prior to Donald Trump exiting as President of the United States. It was the execution of Dustin John Higgs who’d been sentenced to death for the kidnapping and murder of three women on a National Wildlife Refuge in 1996. And it’s not a coincidence that the most recent federal execution took place while Trump was president. Since 1964, there’s been a clearly partisan bend to the handling of federal executions. All of which have happened since then have been carried out under Republican administrations. John F. Kennedy, in 1963, was the last Democrat to authorize the execution of a convict sentenced to death. Within the previous 25 years, there have been a total of 16 federal executions carried out. 13 of those occurred during President Trump’s four years in office with three being carried out during George W. Bush’s eight years in office. In fact, of all presidents, only Franklin Delanor Roosevelt carried out more non-military executions during their time as president than Donald Trump. Given post JFK-Democrat history, it appears highly unlikely that any will be carried out while Joe Biden is president. And there are still many in waiting.
Most recently there are 51 federal inmates on death row. The average time an inmate has been on death row is 18 years and 11 months. That’s a number that’s certain to grow while Biden remains president. The average had grown to 22 years prior to Trump’s time as president. But while there are 51 federal inmates awaiting death, one way or another, the overwhelming majority of death sentences have been issued within states. There are currently a total of 2,469 inmates on death row across the country – meaning only 2% of death row inmates are held for federal crimes. The state with the highest number of death row inmates – by far is the largest state – California. Similar to what we’ve seen at the federal level with Democrat presidents having refused to authorize an execution of those on death row, the Democrats which have led California post-Arnold Schwarzenegger haven’t carried out executions leading to the large backlog. However, the state with the second biggest backlog is ours.
Florida currently has 337, or nearly 14%, of the country’s entire death row inmate population. And the reason Florida has a death row population that’s greater than twice the size of our state’s population in relation to the country – despite having consistently had republican governors who’ve been willing to carry out the death penalty? The appeals process. Prisoners commonly exhaust various appeals processes which can be numerous based on the complexity of their case and can take multiple years each to work their way through the legal system. The average age a convict on Florida’s death row was at the time they committed the crime they were sentenced to death for is 27. The average age at the time of execution is 45. The 18-year disparity has led to a growing backlog overtime. Florida isn’t unique in that regard, 18-years on death row is the national average as well.
With Florida set to potentially lower the threshold for juries to issue a death sentence, we’re likely to see the backlog grow still larger unless there’s corresponding action to limit or significantly speed up the appeals processes for those on death row.