The Orlando Sentinel ran a story about Florida death row inmates dying before they could be executed. Apparently the grim reaper himself often appears in the fourteen year wait between sentencing and government sponsored execution. In the last ten years, it’s been a 50/50 proposition as to which comes first. From “Justice denied? On Florida’s death row, many lives end — but not by execution”:

Such figures don’t surprise experts because death-penalty cases can take years — even decades — to work through the legal system.

While the condemned wait, they can fall victim to ailments traceable to years of unhealthy living before their convictions, including drugs and alcohol abuse.

It’s doubtful that accurate statistics are kept on how far below average the health habits of future prison inmates compare to the general population, but I’m willing to accept that partial explanation on common sense grounds. But I’d also bet that every year in the joint ages a man at least twice as fast as a year outside. At least twice, probably more.

One inmate committed suicide and therefore didn’t die “strapped to a gurney with witnesses watching through a glass window as the court ordered.” One of his victim’s family members said that while he didn’t feel cheated, he felt no relief either.

Any folks out there sweating Death as their loved one’s murderer appeals his way out of punishment? But of course. For example, one woman whose cousin was murdered (by a man related to her by marriage) said:

[S]he does not oppose appeals, in general, because she wants the "right bad guy" punished. She wants her family to be able to live without the fear that Hitchcock could someday go free, however.

"I do not want him to die of natural causes," Meadows said. "I want him to know the fear of taking that walk to his final destination on earth."

Before my server explodes with angry emails about “how would YOU feel IF…” let me go on record right now:

If you killed one of my family members I would not want you to feel the fear of waiting for the Government to kill you back. Instead, I would want you to feel absolute and total terror as I personally strangled, stabbed, shot, and otherwise tortured you into Hell.

However, I like to think I could acknowledge that “how I felt about it” shouldn’t be the only public policy consideration in determining your punishment. Or, for example, whether or not we stopped to have a trial before we punished you in the first place. But I admit I haven’t been there and hope never to be.

But why so long? Why must it take so damn long to get through the process, right? That’s what concerns most of us. The article finishes with – or is that gives short shrift to? – just one of many examples of a man who was rightly saved by the length of the process:

Former death-row inmate Juan Roberto Melendez, 58, says he’s alive because he had the time to appeal.

He was sentenced to die for the 1983 murder of Auburndale beauty-salon owner Delbert Baker.

It took 17 years, eight months and a day before his attorneys uncovered evidence that would have cast doubt on Melendez’s guilt. Polk County prosecutors elected to drop the charges.

On Jan. 3, 2002, he became a free man.

"In trying to get the Ted Bundys and child killers, innocent people get caught up in the net," he said by phone from where he lives in New Mexico. "The system is not perfect."

The system is not perfect. Therefore decreasing the time between sentencing and death necessitates increasing the wrongfully executed. So pick your poison, and live with the consequences either way.

[Hat Tip: Sentencing Law & Policy Blog]