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What 120 Executions Tell Us About Criminal Justice in America

The Marshall Project tracked every execution in America for more than five years. For condemned people, the path to death grew longer, more winding and erratic.

For five and a half years, The Marshall Project has tracked every execution in America. Despite the trauma suffered in these cases—all of them marked by profound losses—they are all too often invisible to most of us.

By recording each story and noting every death, we could show how the machinery of capital punishment quietly grinds forward while few are watching. In the process, we hoped to better understand how our courts and prisons dispense their most severe punishment.

To do this, we created The Next to Die and built a national network of news organizations to help us cover individual cases. On paper, the federal government and 27 states allow juries to impose death sentences for the worst crimes. In practice, fewer than half carry out such sentences, among them Alabama, which plans to put to death Willie B. Smith III on Thursday in its first execution of the year.

This story was published in partnership with AL.com and the Houston Chronicle.

Even for those on death row, executions are rare. Since The Marshall Project began tracking cases in August of 2015, the courts set death dates for more than 230 people in these active death penalty states, a small fraction of the nearly 2,600 people sitting on death rows across the country. Many prisoners convinced courts to allow them to pursue additional appeals or were granted reprieves by governors. Yet 120 were executed in that time.

They were sentenced to die for crimes that led to the deaths of many others. Corpus Christi, Texas, Police Lt. Stuart Alexander was run down and killed while trying to stop a freeway chase. Harriet Smith was shot in a drug robbery in Missouri in 2002. Charles Estep was stabbed more than three dozen times in his Tennessee prison cell in 1985. Three-year-old Sheila Marie Evans was raped and beaten to death by her mother’s boyfriend in Ohio.

The Executed

Since August of 2015, 120 people have been executed. Read the stories of their cases.

January 2021 → Dustin Higgs, Corey Johnson, Lisa Montgomery December 2020 → Alfred Bourgeois, Brandon Bernard November 2020 → Orlando Hall September 2020 → Christopher Vialva, William LeCroy August 2020 → Keith Nelson, Lezmond Mitchell July 2020 → Dustin Honken, Wesley Purkey, Daniel Lee, Billy Wardlow May 2020 → Walter Barton March 2020 → Nathaniel Woods February 2020 → Nicholas Sutton, Abel Ochoa January 2020 → Donnie Lance, John Gardner December 2019 → Travis Runnels, Lee Hall November 2019 → Ray Cromartie, Justen Hall, Charles Rhines October 2019 → Russell Bucklew September 2019 → Robert Sparks, Mark Soliz, Billy Crutsinger August 2019 → Gary Bowles, Larry Swearingen, Stephen West June 2019 → Marion Wilson May 2019 → Christopher Price, Robert Long, Michael Samra, Donnie Johnson, Scotty Morrow April 2019 → John King February 2019 → Billie Coble, Domineque Ray January 2019 → Robert Jennings December 2018 → Jose Jimenez, Alvin Braziel, David Miller, Joseph Garcia November 2018 → Robert Ramos, Edmund Zagorski October 2018 → Rodney Berget September 2018 → Daniel Acker, Troy Clark August 2018 → Carey Moore, Billy Irick July 2018 → Robert Van Hook, Christopher Young June 2018 → Danny Bible May 2018 → Juan Castillo, Robert Butts April 2018 → Erick Davila, Walter Moody March 2018 → Rosendo Rodriguez, Carlton Gary, Michael Eggers February 2018 → Eric Branch, John Battaglia January 2018 → William Rayford, Anthony Shore November 2017 → Ruben Cardenas, Patrick Hannon October 2017 → Torrey McNabb, Robert Pruett, Michael Lambrix September 2017 → Gary Otte August 2017 → Mark Asay July 2017 → Taichin Preyor, Ronald Phillips, William Morva June 2017 → Robert Melson May 2017 → Thomas Arthur, J.W. Ledford April 2017 → Kenneth Williams, Marcel Williams, Jack Jones, Ledell Lee March 2017 → James Bigby, Rolando Ruiz January 2017 → Mark Christeson, Terry Edwards, Ricky Gray, Christopher Wilkins December 2016 → Ronald Smith, William Sallie November 2016 → Steven Spears October 2016 → Gregory Lawler, Barney Fuller July 2016 → John Conner May 2016 → Earl Forrest April 2016 → Daniel Lucas, Kenneth Fults, Pablo Vasquez March 2016 → Joshua Bishop, Adam Ward, Coy Wesbrook February 2016 → Travis Hittson, Gustavo Garcia, Brandon Jones January 2016 → James Freeman, Christopher Brooks, Richard Masterson, Oscar Bolin December 2015 → Brian Terrell November 2015 → Marcus Johnson, Raphael Holiday October 2015 → Jerry Correll, Licho Escamilla, Juan Garcia, Alfredo Prieto September 2015 → Kelly Gissendaner, Roderick Nunley August 2015 → Daniel Lopez

After marking these cases, we are winding down The Next to Die and beginning a new series of stories on capital punishment, Death Sentences. More than five years of immersion in the death penalty allowed us to unearth new truths about the criminal justice system and the erratic ways it metes out punishment. We learned that very often a death date is not final—and many of those awaiting execution find the day scheduled and rescheduled. We saw that even once that date arrives, appeals and bureaucratic delays mean that the condemned and the victims’ families can wait hours and hours before someone is put to death. And we saw that even as capital punishment waned overall in the U.S., enough states pursued it that someone has been executed every two and a half weeks on average since the summer of 2015.

The case of Juan Castillo in Texas offers a snapshot of the convoluted path to execution. Convicted of killing his girlfriend’s former lover in a robbery, Castillo was scheduled to die in May of 2017, which was then rescheduled for September. After Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, where his lawyers were based, the district attorney withdrew the date to give them more time to prepare. Castillo was then set to be executed in December before the courts halted the process to allow him to pursue an appeal. Eventually a new date was set for May of 2018. After the appointed hour arrived and initial delays, Castillo, who maintained his innocence, was killed by lethal injection and pronounced dead 44 minutes after the execution was scheduled to start.

The wheels of the criminal justice system roll steadily, but the outcome is rarely certain or swift, for anyone involved.

Executions keep coming, even as some states struggle to carry them out.

National

State and federal governments put people to death more frequently than many of us realize, even though fewer and fewer states impose the ultimate penalty. While there can be long stretches in individual states between executions, when you look at the country as a whole, capital punishment is far from extinct.

One reason the death penalty endures is because some states—mostly in the South—pursue it with particular fervor. Since The Next to Die began, Texas has executed 43 people, twice as many as Georgia, the next closest state. Arkansas broke an 11-year hiatus to execute four men in eight days in 2017 (four others were granted stays) before its supply of lethal drugs expired. Virginia, historically a death penalty leader, executed only three and had to borrow the drugs from Texas to kill Alfredo Prieto.

On April 24, 2017, Arkansas executed Jack Jones and Marcel Williams in the span of about three hours. Under the Trump administration, federal executions resumed after a 17-year hiatus.

And yet, since its heyday in the 1990s when 98 people were put to death in one year, capital punishment has fallen off considerably. In states like Colorado, legislatures have abolished the sentence outright, sending anyone remaining on death row to serve out life sentences in the general prison population. Last week, Virginia’s legislature voted to ban death as a punishment. The governors of California and Pennsylvania have said they will not carry out any executions.

Then COVID-19 upended nearly everything in the world, and the death penalty was no different. Several states, including Texas and Tennessee, delayed executions during the pandemic. At the same time, the federal government pushed ahead with an uncharacteristic surge and put 13 people to death, drawing criticism and legal filings arguing that the executions turned into superspreader events for coronavirus, infecting more than a dozen people.

Even Texas has seen executions ebb after the legislature in 2005 allowed juries in capital murder cases to sentence people to life without parole instead of death.

In addition, a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions narrowed the ranks of who could be considered for the death penalty, excluding those who are too young, too intellectually disabled or too mentally ill—even though many remain on death row. At the same time, new forms of defense have evolved. New arguments and investigations led to longer, more costly trials and subsequent appeals, forcing many jurisdictions to rethink whether to pursue capital punishment in the first place.

Executions have also been slowed because the methods of putting people to death have come under sustained legal challenge. Most states use drugs intended to sedate and paralyze a person and stop the heart, but the drugs have come under increasing criticism as an excessively painful form of execution. Some manufacturers have stopped selling them to prisons, and opponents have brought suits that have tied up states like Arizona, Arkansas, Ohio and others in litigation for years.

In response, some states have been forced to seek alternatives. Tennessee brought back the electric chair and used it to execute Edmund Zagorski and four others. Nebraska became the first state to use the opioid fentanyl to kill a prisoner: Carey Dean Moore in 2018. But in Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine has said there is an unofficial moratorium on capital punishment, because they can’t secure the medicine to carry it out. “Lethal injection appears to us to be impossible from a practical point of view today,” the governor told the Associated Press in December. The shortage has left dozens of death row prisoners in Ohio in limbo, even as the state continues to set execution dates that get pushed back time and again, some as far out as 2024.

One-third of people executed went through more than one death date.

Often an execution date does not signal the end of a case.

Among the 120 people put to death since we started counting in the summer of 2015, more than one-third were given multiple execution dates. One man, Ronald Phillips, received at least five dates from the state of Ohio because of delays due to lawsuits over the lethal injection drugs before he was put to death in 2017.

Of the 234 people with a date set since The Next to Die began, nearly half are still alive, usually because lawyers convinced courts to give them another chance to pursue appeals.

Occasionally, governors have commuted sentences of the condemned to life in prison. In 2018, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott commuted the sentence of Thomas Whitaker an hour before he was to die. Later that year, Ohio Gov. John Kasich commuted the sentence of Raymond Tibbetts, after a juror argued evidence was withheld from the jury that might have moved them to mercy.

Executions can also fail. In 2017, Ohio executioners gave up trying to inject Alva Campbell, who suffered from cancer and other serious illnesses, after a half-hour of trying to find his vein. He died of natural causes in a local hospital a few months later after collapsing in his cell. His experience was similar to Romell Broom, whose execution in Ohio in 2009 was called off after prison officials stuck him 18 times trying to find a vein. He was rescheduled to be put to death in 2022 before he died of COVID-19 in December. Campbell and Broom were two of eight men who died in recent years of other causes after having death dates set.

Then there are more unusual reasons for delays. In a case in Texas, Anthony Shore received a 90-day stay on the day he was to be put to death, because he had tried to take the blame for the murder of college student Melissa Trotter, the crime that sent another man, Larry Swearingen, to death row.

Sometimes bureaucratic flubs cause delays. In the case of Swearingen, the paperwork setting his execution date was sent to the wrong state office. (Both Swearingen and Shore were later executed.)

In Ohio, Rep. Bill Seitz has co-sponsored bills to limit who can face execution, including the severely mentally ill, and has seen the movement of death dates there due to the drug shortages. He said the endless rescheduling has frustrated prosecutors, as well as the families of victims.

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“In their minds, justice is being delayed and delayed,” Seitz said.

A solution would be for the legislature to choose another means of execution that doesn’t rely on drugs, he said. The challenge would be to find one that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled to be Constitutional. Otherwise, he said, “you're just coming up with a proposed methodology for execution that will not be carried out.”

Once an execution date arrives, many wait for hours to learn their fate.

The length of time death row prisoners wait for their sentences to be carried out has risen dramatically in recent decades. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics found that since the 1980s the average time from conviction to execution has tripled to nearly 20 years.

In 2017, when the U.S. Supreme Court denied Rolando Ruiz’s appeal to stop his execution in Texas, Justice Stephen Breyer called out the delays in a dissent. He cited an 1890 court decision and wrote “a prisoner’s uncertainty before execution is ‘one of the most horrible feelings to which he can be subjected.’”

When the hour of death arrives, it often comes slowly. On average, prisoners wait more than two hours. It’s not only the condemned who suffer through the minutes and hours of delays—families of the victims are often on hand to witness executions and must endure the wait as well.

On occasion, as in the cases of Campbell or Broom in Ohio, the holdup can be attributed to the execution team being unable to inject the prisoner. More often however, lawyers for the prisoner and for the government are filing legal motions that lead to delays. State and federal courts will alternately forbid and allow an execution to proceed until ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court makes a final ruling.

In Texas, half of the 43 executions we tracked happened within 40 minutes of the appointed hour. Georgia and Alabama took close to three hours. In the fastest execution, Walter Barton was dead 10 minutes after his scheduled time in Missouri.

In Alabama, Tommy Arthur was sent to death row in 1983 after being convicted of murder-for-hire. He was given a November 2016 death date, which was delayed for nearly five hours before the U.S. Supreme Court halted his execution. When the 75-year-old Arthur was given a new date the following May, he waited again while the Supreme Court considered another appeal. After the court declined to hear his case, he was dead shortly after midnight, more than six hours after the execution was to begin.

In the worst scenarios, men have waited more than half a day while their appeals bounced from court to court. Days before Daniel Lewis Lee was to become the first person executed by the federal government in decades, a U.S. district judge stayed his execution. An appeals court allowed it to go forward. Then a district court stopped it again, until, hours after the execution was to begin, the Supreme Court lifted the stay. Lee died just after 8 a.m., after 16 hours of waiting at the death chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana. His lawyers later reported that he was strapped to a gurney for four hours before he died.

The next day, Wesley Purkey, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, went through a similar ordeal in the courts, waiting more than 16 hours before the Bureau of Prisons put him to death.

Attorney Dale Baich represented Keith Nelson, who was on federal death row and saw what Lee and Purkey endured before they were put to death. The night before Nelson’s execution in August, a court lifted a stay that had been in place.

“Keith said, ‘Don't appeal it. I'm only going to lose. Don't appeal it,’” Baich said.

When the hour came, Nelson was dead within 32 minutes.

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Tom Meagher , senior editor, joined The Marshall Project at its founding in 2014. He previously led an interactive team for the Digital First Media newspaper chain and was the data editor at the Newark Star-Ledger. He got his start in journalism covering night cops for a small daily paper in Kansas.