In the USA, once appeals have been exhausted, why do prisoners spend so much time on death row?

My personal opinions on death penalty aside, I would expect that once the sentence is final, it should be carried out without much further delay.

  • 1
    Do they? It does seem like capital punishment takes a long time in the U.S., but do you have any sources indicating the time between last appeal and execution? My guess is that it isn't that long, but rather that the number of available appeals before such a "final" sentence is what draws out the terms on "death row."
    – feetwet
    Oct 1, 2015 at 17:03
  • @feetwet: pretty sure you're right, a death sentence isn't "final" until it's carried out. The system allows both the legality of the execution to be challenged, and clemency to be sought from the relevant Governor or the President, right up to the scheduled execution date. Oct 2, 2015 at 8:31
  • Given the final nature of the death penalty I would suspect that any haste within the process would be considered negligent. From my understanding (of campaigning to prevent it) the "seeming" wait is the exhaustion of all avenues of appeal.
    – user4651
    Sep 7, 2016 at 17:44

2 Answers 2


The time spent on death row is largely due to appeals, habeas proceedings, and a growing backlog. The time between an actual final appeal and execution is not astonishingly long. (However, "final" appeal is hard to pinpoint because a death row inmate can file successive habeas petitions at the federal level).

To highlight the relatively quick turnaround between a "final" appeal and execution, Richard Glossip lost an appeal to the US Supreme Court (Glossip v. Gross) on June 29, 2015 and was scheduled for execution in Oklahoma on September 30, 2015, a delay of 93 days (Mary Fallin Executive Order 2015-42). Due to unavailability of a particular drug, the execution has been further delayed until November 6, 2015 (ibid).

The rest of this answer explains the long delay between initial conviction/sentencing and eventual execution, using California as an example.

In California, since 1978, approximately 20-40 people have been added to death row per year, while fewer than 10 per year are executed. (California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice Final Report, p. 121)

There are generally three different appeals available to the defendant: a direct appeal to the state Supreme Court, a writ of habeas corpus to the state Supreme Court, and a writ of habeas corpus to the federal district court. (ibid)

The federal district court ruling regarding the habeas petition can be appealed to the 9th Circuit. That Circuit's ruling can be appealed to the US Supreme Court. (ibid)

The Commission identified several points that are responsible for the long delays in California (ibid):

  • delay in appointing counsel for direct appeal (3-5 year delay)
  • delay in scheduling a case to the California Supreme Court (2.25 years between application and oral argument)
  • delay in appointing counsel for the state habeas petition (8-10 year delay)
  • delay in deciding the state habeas petition (22 months)
  • delay in deciding federal habeas petition (6.2 years)
  • delay in appealing the federal habeas petition to the 9th District (2.2 years)

enter image description here

The US Supreme Court also publishes a primer on the death penalty appeals and the habeas process (see especially pp. 8-10).


Because taking every option to appeal the execution takes so long.

You get put in death row after the first sentence. However you still have the option to appeal the sentence (using an attorney as a go between) which will delay the execution during the appeal process.

Only if you don't decide to appeal will the sentence be carried out swiftly. But not everyone is that accepting of getting killed.

  • 1
    On death sentences, you must appeal.
    – user2425
    Oct 1, 2015 at 21:49
  • @Benjamin; Really? Mar 1, 2016 at 6:39
  • 1
    Yes, it is automatic.
    – user2425
    Mar 2, 2016 at 23:46
  • 1
    Here: capitalpunishmentincontext.org/resources/dpappealsprocess
    – user2425
    Mar 3, 2016 at 1:28
  • 3
    Turns out I was wrong it is only mandatory in some states: but, it is still worth mentioning.
    – user2425
    Mar 3, 2016 at 1:30

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.