How Long Is a Sentence on Death Row?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on May 21, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Even though Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death last week, it could be another decade before he is executed. Tsarnaev was convicted in federal court, and the last federal execution took place in 2003.

There are a number of factors that contribute to the average time spent on death row, without taking into account the 152 exonerations of prisoners on death row since 1973. So how long will Tsarnaev's wait be?

Appealing Death Sentences

According to the Bureau of Justice and the Death Penalty Information Center, the average time between sentencing and execution in 2012 was 190 months, or just under 16 years. This number has been steadily climbing, largely due to the appellate process.

All defendants sentenced to death have an automatic review of the conviction, where an appellate court determines whether the verdict and sentence were legally sound. After that, there is an optional state "collateral review" of the verdict, where the prisoner can challenge his sentence. From there he can file for federal habeas corpus, which determines whether the lower courts and reviews reasonably protected the prisoner's federal constitutional rights. (In federal cases like Tsarnaev's, the state review is skipped.)

Each appeal can take time, which can vary based on whether the prisoner chooses to exhaust all of his appeals or not. For instance, Timothy McVeigh dropped most of his options for appeal, and was executed just 4 years after his sentencing verdict.

State and Federal Death Row

As noted above, Tsarnaev was charged with federal crimes, convicted in federal court, and will be assigned to federal death row. There are only 62 inmates on federal death row, compared to over 3,000 on state death rows nationwide.

Just 37 federal prisoners have been executed since 1927, and only 3 of those have been put to death since 1963. Those three are McVeigh, Juan Raul Garza (convicted in 1993, executed in 2001) and Louis Jones, Jr. (convicted in 1995, executed in 2003).

And there are six others currently on federal death row, the shortest current wait being around seven years, the longest around 17. How long it will be until Tsarnaev is executed will depend on his appeals process, but it could be a long wait on death row.

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