Friday, 15 June 2007

Prison officials have reasons for middle-of-night executions

Muncie police officers talk outside the Indiana State Prison Thursday evening in Michigan City. Lambert shot Muncie police officer Greg Winters in 1990 and he died 11 days later in 1991.

MUNCIE -- Hangings were once a public affair, held in town squares for everyone to see.
So why are modern executions traditionally held at midnight?

Several legal and practical factors affected the change, according to Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

First of all, the public hangings became unruly.
"Having it late at night made it less of a public event and more of a private carrying out of the state's law," Dieter said.

The electric chair also helped usher in the change. As the chair's popularity as a killing machine swept across the country, prisons were forced to move executions inside to accommodate for the equipment, Dieter said.

New York adopted the electric chair in 1890 and by the 1960s, it was the main method of execution for Americans, Dieter said.
The last public execution was in either Kentucky or Missouri in the 1930s. Accounts vary in which state can rightfully make that claim, Dieter said.

Second, midnight executions help lessen the chance of an uprising or riot among angry prisoners. All of them are on lockdown at this time.

Finally, holding executions at midnight provides some cushion time should something go wrong. Death warrants only last for 24 hours. If the execution is not carried out during that time period, the state must re-petition the court for another death warrant.

Holding the execution as early as possible allows for delays for temporary appeals, Dieter said.
In Indiana, state law actually mandates that executions be carried out before sunrise, according to Barry Nothstine, spokesman for the Indiana State Prison.

"The only thing I can think of is with the electric chair, they figured if they did it early and something went wrong, they would have time to repair it," Nothstine said.
In the past 10 years or so, however, some states -- including Texas, Virginia, Florida and Arizona -- have moved executions to afternoons and evenings, Dieter said.

This came in the wake of critical comments in 1997 from Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who remarked that it was not ideal to receive last-minute stay requests so late.
"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," she said.

Contact news reporter Nick Werner at 213-5832.

No comments: