The impending February 28, 2019 execution date for 70-year-old Texas condemned inmate Billie Coble underscores the issue of the nation’s aging death row population. According to the Texas Tribune, there were 224 inmates housed on Texas’s death row as of January 14, 2019 who have been awaiting execution for an average of 15 years and nine months. Coble is the third oldest inmate on the state’s death row—just 8 days younger than 70-year Donald Bess, both of whom are 70.5 years of age. The oldest inmate on death row is Arturo Aranda who is 70.9 years of age and has spent slightly more than 41 years on death row.


15 Inmates Have Spent 35 Years on Death Row


Coble has grown old during more than 28 years on death row. But that period pales in comparison to the fifteen inmates have been on death row longer than him—six of whom were convicted in Harris County, including 68-year-old Raymond Riles who has spent 43 years on death row, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The average age of those fifteen inmates is 56.7 years and they have been on death row for an average of 35.1 years.


Geriatric Prison, Death Row


The execution of Billie Coble next month will reinforce an emerging reality: the natural aging process has made America a geriatric death penalty nation. Last April the state of Alabama executed 83-year-old Walter Moody, the oldest person executed in this country in modern history and possibly since the country’s founding. This nation’s death penalty system has stooped to the level that states like Alabama are willing to put to death inmates suffering from terminal diseases like cancer and who are mentally hobbled by strokes and dementia.


In 2010 Leroy Nash was 92 years old when he died of natural causes on Arizona’s death row. He was the oldest inmate on death row in America at the time. He was deaf, blind, mentally ill, and suffering from dementia at the time of his death. The state of Arizona still planned to carry out his execution, just as the state of Texas had every intention to put 78-year-old Jack Harry Smith to death before he died in 2016. He was the oldest Texas death row inmate at the time.


Long Term Death Row Incarceration Cruel and Unusual Punishment


In 2009, the year before his retirement, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens opined that long term death row incarceration and the often intolerable conditions of confinement of these maximum security lockdowns make the nation’s death penalty process “unworkable” and possibly constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Stephens’s views were embraced in dissenting opinions in 2015 by Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg who said that “unconscionably long delays … undermine the death penalty’s penological purpose.”


Vernon Madison was convicted in Alabama for the 1985 murder of a police officer and sentenced to death. He has been on that state’s death row for the past 33 years. He suffers from vascular dementia, cannot say the alphabet beyond “G,” does not know why he is on death row, and does not know the day, week or season. The 68-year-old condemned inmate has suffered two life-threatening strokes, lost significant IQ capacity, and could be classified as mentally ill.


Executing Demented, Elderly is Inhumane


Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the anti-death penalty group Equal Justice Initiative, was quoted this past October in the media as saying: “We recognize that it’s too easy for any offender to say, ‘I don’t remember,’ but when you have the kind of disorder that Mr. Madison has … then we argue that there is a legitimate basis for arguing that that person cannot rationally understand the circumstances of their execution, and executing the would be inhumane.”


That same October the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on this very issue in the Madison case. The primary issue the court must decide is whether vascular dementia can serve as a basis for finding an individual too incompetent to be executed. The Deputy Attorney General of Alabama, Thomas Govan, told the justices that the state’s “strong interest in seeking retribution” for horrible crimes like Madison’s usurps an inmate’s dementia claim; that he need only understand that he was convicted of murder to suffice the carrying out of his execution.


The court’s most conservative justices, Alito, Thomas, and Gorsuch, asked no questions during oral arguments and have already indicated they would let Alabama proceed with its desire to execute Madison. The three justices apparently believe there is no difference between executing an insane person from a sane person. They collectively see three things: crime, guilt, and punishment. That’s all that is needed for execution. Justice Thomas in the past has blamed death row inmates for their long term confinements because they avail themselves to a prolonged death penalty appeal process. He obviously believes that if that process drives the inmate mad, then that is not the fault of the state and, therefore, serves no basis for preventing the inmate’s execution.


20 Years on Death Row Unconstitutional, Violates 8th Amendment


The issue that will be decided in the Madison case is a narrow one that will not address the larger issue of whether decades of death row confinement constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The court had an opportunity to address this issue two years ago when it refused to consider Texas death row inmate Rolando Ruiz’s claim that his more than twenty year confinement on death row amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The high court casually brushed the issue aside and allowed Ruiz’s execution to go forward. Justice Breyer dissented, saying:


“At this point, a quarter-century has elapsed since Mr. Ruiz committed a contract murder in 1992, two days after he turned twenty years old. Mr. Ruiz has lived for over two decades under a death sentence, spent almost twenty years in solitary confinement, received two eleventh-hour stays of execution, and has received four different execution dates. Mr. Ruiz argues that his execution ‘violates the Eighth Amendment’ because it ‘follow[s] lengthy [death row] incarceration in traumatic conditions,’ principally his ‘permanent solitary confinement.’ I believe his claim is a strong one, and we should consider it.”


Ruiz was executed on March 7, 2017.


42 Years on Death Row Waiting to be Executed


In 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court described a condemned prisoner’s four-week wait prior to execution as “one of the most horrible feelings to which [a person] can be subjected.” Last June Justice Breyer said in another dissenting opinion in the case of Richard Jordan, who has spent more than 42 years on Mississippi’s death row, that:


“Jordan, now 72 years old, is one among an aging population of death row inmates who remain on death row for ever longer periods of time. Over the past decade, the percentage of death row prisoners aged 60 or older has increased more than twofold from around 7% in 2008 to more than 16% of the death row population by the most recent estimate … Meanwhile, the average period of imprisonment between death sentence and execution has risen from a little over 6 years in 1988 to more than 11 years in 2008 to more than 19 years over the past year …”

Not a single person in America in 1890 could have comprehended a 42-year wait in a solitary cell for the hangman’s noose. It is telling that today many Americans can accept the execution of an 83-year-old man who has spent nearly three decades on death row.

$16 Billion a Year to Incarcerate Elderly

According to Justice Breyer’s figure, more than 426 of the nation’s 2,664 death row inmates are 60 years of age or older. Most will ultimately be put to death—not because the states have a “strong interest in retribution” but because the states cannot afford the costs of keeping them alive in a general prison population setting. It now costs the nation’s prison systems roughly $16 billion a year to house elderly inmates with medical problems.

So, states like Alabama, Texas, Mississippi and others will continue to kill off its old, sick death row inmates because it is the most cost-efficient way to deal with them.  Cruel and unusual punishment indeed…