Here’s How Many Death Row Inmates Die Waiting To Die

A California court is deciding whether it's inhumane to keep someone waiting for so long on death row

Aug 31, 2015 at 4:20 PM ET

Most people who believe the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment focus on the growing number of botched executions. But a new legal appeal in California argues that the most barbarous part of whole process is actually keeping a person on death row and not executing them.

In California, more prisoners on death row have died of natural causes than have been executed, the Associated Press reported. Out of 900 killers sentenced to death since 1978, only 13 have been executed. The hearing at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena on Monday makes California just the latest state to consider the constitutionality of the death penalty—Connecticut and Nebraska both eliminated it earlier this year.

Across the country, death row inmates typically spend over a decade awaiting execution, and some have been on death row for over 20 years. The average wait time between sentencing and execution increased from 74 to 190 months from 1984 to 2012, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics numbers compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center.

In many cases, there are long waits that never lead to executions. Vocativ compiled data on capital punishment between 2000 and 2013 and found that in some years, the number of inmates on death row around the country who died of natural causes, suicide or murder by another inmate was almost as high as the number of inmates who were executed. Take 2013, for example, the latest year for which BJS published capital punishment data. Of the 2,979 people on death row in that year, 39 were executed, and 31 died of natural causes, suicide or murder by another inmate, according to BJS numbers.

Over the entire 13 years, the statistics were about 3:1 in favor of execution: Nationally, 299 death row inmates from 2000 to 2013 died of means other than execution, while 761 were executed, according to the BJS data.