Delay looms as big issue in execution cases

Published 12:05 am Sunday, May 23, 2010

Who knows? Gerald James Holland and Paul Everette Woodward might have had longer lives due to the death penalty.

After all, outside the environs of Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, there are car wrecks, house fires, shootouts and more exposure to the ravages of drugs and alcohol. Inside, where Holland and Woodward were both sent for raping and murdering young women 24 years ago, is comparatively safe. Fate knows whether their lives were extended or shortened by their crimes. We never will.

We can know this: Before being put to death by the state of Mississippi last week, Woodward had reached the age of 62. That’s more than 2 1/2 times the lifespan of Rhonda Crane, who was 24 when she was kidnapped, abused and shot in the head in Perry County. And before being put to death last week, Holland had reached the age of 72. That’s almost five times the lifespan of Krystal King, who was sodomized and strangled in Biloxi on her 15th birthday.

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Holland, by the way, was senior among Mississippi’s Death Row inmates, but was not the oldest person executed in that state. John Nixon got that distinction five years ago when, at 77, he was administered a lethal injection for crimes committed 20 years earlier.

People support or oppose the death penalty for myriad reasons.

Supporters say it is a deterrent, will reduce crime, that the severity of a punishment should match the severity of a crime. They say rehabilitation fails. Killers, especially killers who are a continuing threat to the public, deserve what they get. And they claim backing by the Bible.

Opponents say it is not a deterrent, that rehabilitation can work, that the risk of executing innocent people is too high and that racial prejudice cannot be eliminated from trials and sentences. Some claim life in prison is actually more severe — forcing killers to remember their acts daily. And, as with supporters, they point to Scripture.

Cost is an issue raised by both sides. Supporters point to the expense of housing, guarding and feeding a person serving life without parole. Opponents point to the costs of the many appeals and processes that precede executions.

Some arguments can’t be proved one way or another. For instance, it is true that no person, after execution, has been a repeat offender. Most people imprisoned and eventually released after heinous crimes might not, but some do strike again.

Race is a factor that can be examined only in statistical terms.

From 1817 until 1972 when the U.S. Supreme Court declared executions unconstitutional, Mississippi executed 351 people, a rate of just over 2 per year. A racial breakdown was not available, but it’s probably safe to say black people were disproportionately represented.

After the U.S. Supreme Court defined what it would take to make a death sentence constitutional — and Mississippi passed such a law in 1977 — there have now been an even dozen actual executions, a rate of about one every three years. All have been men; three black and nine white.

As for the whole Death Row population, there are 57 men and three women; 28 white, 31 black and one Asian.

Regarding innocence, three men sent to Death Row in Mississippi in the past 33 years have been released due to wrongful convictions.

For Woodward and Holland, there was no question of guilt or innocence. Both did the crimes for which they were administered lethal injections.

But what is increasingly an issue — perhaps even a constitutional question — is how long is too long? Will the day come when courts will rule that death sentences are automatically converted to life without parole if the state doesn’t conclude its legal actions within a fixed amount of time? Some will say the constant delays are a strategy of death penalty opponents. Perhaps that’s accurate. The longer they can keep their clients alive, the better the chances states or the Supreme Court will outlaw executions. When the court did that in 1972, hundreds of death sentences were commuted by states.

In Mississippi today, based on the two executions carried out last week, the average length of time between crime and the ultimate punishment increased to 15 years.

And even though he was senior on Death Row at Parchman, Gerald James Holland hasn’t been there the longest. That distinction belongs to Richard G. Jordan. He turns 64 on Thursday and has spent 34 years — more than half his life — awaiting execution.

Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail