On TV crime dramas, when a defendant is sentenced to death, deputies usually take him by the arm and escort him out of the courtroom with a shell-shocked look on his face. All that's left is a final wisecrack by a prosecutor or detective while having a celebratory scotch, and then the credits roll. We don't need to see the bad guy in an execution chamber on a gurney, with a needle in his arm. We assume that's going to happen.
In real life, though, the story doesn't end so neatly. In fact, it's likely to drag on for years, even decades, as the condemned prisoner and his lawyers contest his conviction in court. Virtually all condemned U.S. inmates receive at least one stay of execution, in which a judge issues a temporary order that blocks prison authorities from carrying out the execution, usually until some legal issue is resolved [source: Finkelman].
Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, for example, generally issue a stay of execution when they agree to review a decision by a lower court. They also can issue a stay to one condemned prisoner when another's pending case deals with a legal issue that may affect the first prisoner's fate [source: Finkelman].
Stays of execution can add drama to a real-life case, because sometimes they are issued just days, hours or even minutes before a prisoner is to be executed. And in at least one instance, a wrong number made the stay come too late.
What happened? See the next page.
Caryl Chessman, the infamous "red light bandit," pretended to be a police officer so that he could rob and sexually assault women. He was convicted in 1948 on 17 felony counts [source: Associated Press]. Although Chessman hadn't killed anyone, the two kidnapping counts qualified him for the death penalty under a stringent California anti-kidnapping statute [source: Biography.com]. The mountain of evidence against Chessman, which included three victims who unequivocally identified him, was compelling [source: Time].
Nevertheless, over the next 12 years, Chessman managed to make himself into an international cause célèbre, in part by writing several books professing his innocence — one of which, "Cell 2455, Death Row," was made into a 1955 movie [source: The New York Times]. Numerous celebrities, including former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and evangelist Billy Graham, supported his cause. On February 1960, California Gov. Edmund "Pat" Brown granted Chessman his eighth stay of execution, citing the concern that his execution might trigger demonstrations against President Eisenhower when he visited Uruguay [source: Mayer].
But when that stay expired, prison officials quickly moved to execute him. On May 2, 1960, the day of his scheduled execution at San Quentin, his lawyer got a federal judge to issue another stay — just one minute before the cyanide pellets were to be dropped into the gas chamber. The judge's secretary called San Quentin, but misdialed the number. By the time she got through, the pellets were already dropped and no one could enter the chamber without dying themselves. Chessman's execution went on [source: Biography].
Washington state's Jake Bird freely admitted that he was a murderer. In fact, by various accounts, he claimed to have committed or been involved in least 29 and as many as 44 killings. Oddly, he professed innocence in the one murder of which he actually was tried and convicted, the 1947 ax murder of Bertha Kludt in Tacoma. His argument was undermined a bit by a persuasive piece of evidence — a bloody ax that he was carrying when he was arrested near her home [source: Associated Press].
But although he possessed little formal education, Bird came up with an ingenious ploy. By proclaiming that he had committed scores of other murders, he forced then-Gov. Mon Wallgren to postpone his execution, so that authorities would have a chance to investigate and see if Bird's admissions cleared up long-unsolved cases. (While he may have been exaggerating, he wasn't lying completely, because they linked him conclusively to at least 11 killings in seven states.) Additionally, Bird used legal maneuvers to obtain two more last-minute stays from state and federal courts.
But on July 15, 1949, Bird's luck finally ran out. After consuming his fourth "last meal," he was hanged at Washington State Penitentiary, in Walla Walla. No one claimed his body, which was buried in the prison yard [sources: Associated Press, United Press].
In June 1963, James Douglas Latham and George Ronald York (who are mentioned in the Truman Capote true crime book "In Cold Blood") were scheduled to hang at midnight at a prison in Lansing, Kansas, for the 1961 murder of Otto Ziegler. He was one of seven they reportedly killed on what the Associated Press characterized as "a cross-country crime orgy."
The two killers were allowed to order their last meal and then were given a bizarre fringe benefit: They could let the warden flip a coin to determine what would be the order of hanging (Kansas only had a single-trap gallows). Latham called the toss and lost, which meant he would go first. But before their sentence could be carried out, a federal appeals court had granted a 30-day stay, after their lawyer argued that their rights had been violated because they hadn't had counsel at a preliminary hearing [source: Associated Press]. All in all, Latham's and York's legal maneuvers won them five postponements of their execution [source: United Press International].
But on June 22, 1965, after four years on death row, their luck ran out. Shortly before their necks were placed in the noose, the two dropped the guise of angry defiance. "I know it won't do much good to say I'm sorry, but I know God has forgiven me, and I hope you people see fit to do the same," York said. This time, the wire service account didn't mention a coin toss or the order in which they were hanged [source: Associated Press].
On the night of Oct. 16, 1931, Frank "The Squealer" Bell was sure that he was about to die. Bell, who'd confessed to the robbery slaying of a Chicago restaurant manager named Christ Patras, had earned his colorful wire service nickname through his willingness to play ball with the authorities. Not only had he implicated his partner in the crime, Richard Sullivan, but once behind bars, he'd tipped off the jail's warden that other convicts were plotting to kill him and escape. Even so, authorities were scheduled to execute him and four other inmates that night, when a judge granted him a stay on grounds that he deserved a sanity hearing.
The jailers didn't recognize the judge's voice over the phone, forcing him to rush to the jail to deliver the order in person. At 11:35 p.m. just minutes before the five convicts were due in the death chamber, Bell was told to stay in his cell [source: International News Service]. Two months later, just minutes before he was to be electrocuted, Bell received another 30-day stay of execution from Illinois Gov. Louis Emmerson. It came after a federal official pleaded for Bell's life — apparently, in appreciation of information that Bell had supplied about a Chicago smuggling ring [source: Associated Press].
Bell finally went to the electric chair on Jan. 8, 1932. In his last statement, he expressed a willingness to testify one more time, claiming that his testimony could exonerate another man — Leo Brothers, who had been convicted of the 1930 murder of corrupt Chicago newspaperman Jake Lingle. This time, it didn't save him [source: Elder].
In the spring of 1951, Julius Rosenberg and his wife Ethel were sentenced to death for passing atom bomb secrets to the Soviet Union, a crime that federal Judge Irving Kaufman called "worse than murder" [source: Linder]. But the couple continued to protest their innocence, and waged a desperate legal battle to stay alive, gaining several stays of execution in the process. Finally, in June 1953, it looked as if their luck had run out, when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a petition to review their case.
With the Rosenbergs scheduled to be executed in three days, their attorney submitted new papers to one of the Supreme Court's justices, William O. Douglas, a strong civil libertarian. Douglas spent 12 hours in his study alone, pondering the Rosenbergs' longshot argument that the penal provisions of the Atomic Energy Act had been improperly applied. On the day before their execution date, he shocked the nation by granting a stay. Douglas then left Washington on a vacation trip, thinking that the court would hold off action for a while.
Instead, Chief Justice Fred Vinson immediately summoned him back for an unusual emergency session of the court the next day, and by a narrow 5-4 vote on June 19, 1953, set aside Douglas' stay [sources: Walz, Huston, Wasby]. The Rosenbergs were executed at Sing Sing prison that evening. Ethel had to be electrocuted twice because her heart was still beating after the first electrocution. Doubts about their actual guilt or innocence continue to this day.
1950s spree killer Charles Starkweather may be most remembered today as the inspiration for Martin Sheen's character Kit in the 1973 film "Badlands," and for Bruce Springsteen's 1982 song "Nebraska," in which he explains his crimes by saying: "Well, sir, I guess there's just a meanness in this world". In real life, the 20-year-old wasn't half as handsome as a young Sheen, and he was no existentialist philosopher either, but rather an all-but-illiterate sociopath who robbed and killed 11 people because, as a psychiatrist testified, "the act of killing meant to him no more than stepping on a bug" [sources: Marsh, Leyton].
Nevertheless, in the early morning hours of May 22, 1959 — just 90 minutes before Starkweather was scheduled to die in the electric chair at Nebraska State Penitentiary, a federal judge granted a stay of execution requested by Starkweather's father, Guy. Starkweather's family, claiming their son's court-appointed lawyers had erred by putting on an insanity defense rather than trying to raise doubts about his guilt, had fired them, leaving him without counsel. Even so, because the move had left Starkweather without a lawyer, the judge felt compelled to hold up his execution so that the prisoner could find a lawyer and submit a writ to an appeals court [source: Associated Press].
The reprieve didn't save him for long. Just than a little more than a month later, on June 25, 1959, he was summoned to the death chamber. His last words, reportedly, were "What's your hurry?" [source: Associated Press]
Ted Bundy, a serial killer who may have killed more than three dozen young women, was once described by journalist Hugh Aynesworth as "the most profound enigma in the history of U.S. criminal justice." Bundy, who was sentenced to die in 1978 for savagely bludgeoning two women to death in a college sorority house, and received another death sentence in 1980 for abducting and killing a 12-year-old girl, was as sick a monster as they come [sources: Florida State University, Johnson]. Yet he was also handsome, articulate and charismatic enough to draw scores of admiring groupies to the courtroom [sources: Aynesworth and Michaud].
And despite having multiple death sentences, the former law student managed to stay alive in prison for nearly a decade, in part by deftly manipulating the system to cause delays. For example, he twice sought postponements of a clemency hearing, and then on the eve of the third, fired his attorney in an attempt to put it off one more time [source: Nordheimer].
Bundy also won multiple stays of execution. In November 1986, two hours after a federal judge in Orlando rejected his appeal, he got a three-judge federal appeals panel to grant him an indefinite stay. The order came at 12:50 a.m., just six hours before he was to be executed [source: United Press International]. On Jan. 24, 1989, though, Bundy finally ran out of tricks, kept his date with "Old Sparky" and was electrocuted at Florida State Prison [source: Nordheimer].
On Oct. 4, 1983, in a state prison in Huntsville, Texas, it looked as if James David Autry was about to die. A drifter from Amarillo, Autry had been sentenced to death for a 1980 double murder in which a convenience store clerk was shot between the eyes as she tried to collect $2.70 from Autry for a six-pack of beer [source: Associated Press].
That morning, Autry awoke before dawn to begin the ritual of execution. He was manacled, placed in the warden's car and driven 13 miles (21 kilometers) away to another prison in Huntsville. Then, at about midnight, after a last meal, he was strapped into a gurney, and a needle was inserted into his arm, as prison officers waited for the order to administer a deadly dose of chemicals.
At 12:39 a.m., they got a call, informing them that the U.S. Supreme Court had stayed Autry's execution for 30 days, while it evaluated the constitutionality of Texas' execution regimen. He remained strapped in the gurney with the needle in his arm for another half an hour, until he was told he could return to his cell [source: Associated Press]. Eventually, however, the court ruled that Autry's execution could proceed, and he was executed in March 1984. The inmate unsuccessfully sued in federal court to force Texas to telecast the event live "to help stop someone else from being put on death row"[source: Associated Press].
Troy Davis was convicted in Georgia of the 1989 fatal shooting of an off-duty police officer, who came to the assistance of a homeless man who was being beaten by a group of assailants that included Davis. But his guilt in the murder was challenged by the NAACP and the Innocence Project, an organization that has exonerated 18 death row inmates between 1992 and 2012 .
Seven of the nine trial witnesses against Davis later recanted their testimony, adding to the outcry against his execution. (Some said one of the two remaining witnesses was the real killer.) About 630,000 people signed petitions asking that his execution be stopped.
In 2007, a state parole board temporarily blocked his execution with just hours to spare, and the following year, the U.S. Supreme Court intervened just 90 minutes before he was to die, though it eventually declined to hear his case.
On Sept. 20, 2011, Davis' execution was put on hold one more time, as the Supreme Court reviewed a last-ditch petition from his lawyers. But unfortunately for him, the justices decided not to intervene. Just before 11 p.m., four hours after the scheduled time, Davis was walked into the death chamber. He continued to maintain his innocence, even looking the family of the murdered officer in the eye and telling them, "I did not personally kill your son, father, brother. All I can ask is that you delve deeper into this case so you really can finally see the truth." Eight minutes later, he was pronounced dead [source: Severson].
Warren Lee Hill's case was one that prompted impassioned arguments from both sides in the debate about the ethics of the death penalty. To proponents, he was a menace to society for whom being behind bars was no deterrent; Hill beat another prison inmate to death with a nail-studded board in 1990, while he was serving a life sentence for the 1985 slaying of his girlfriend. But to death penalty opponents, he was a developmentally disabled man with an IQ of just 70, unfairly sentenced to death.
Unfortunately for Hill, he committed his crimes in Georgia, a state where the law requires inmates to prove mental impairment beyond a reasonable doubt to qualify for mercy, perhaps the strictest standard in the nation. Hill's lawyers responded by attacking the Georgia standard as inequitable, even as they also raised questions about whether Georgia's lethal injection-drug regimen violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. In Feb. 19 2013, they won an unusual double victory, simultaneously obtaining stays of execution from both federal and state courts. The reprieve came just in time — about 30 minutes before Hill was scheduled to receive a lethal injection at a state prison south of Atlanta [source: Watkins and Smith]. For Hill, it was the second close call. In July 2012, he received a stay from the Georgia Supreme Court just hours before he was to be executed [source: CNN]. However on January 27, 2015 he was finally executed. His lawyer called it a "grotesque miscarriage of justice" [source: Connor].
Broken Harts is a new serial podcast that delves into the tragic deaths of the Hart family. HowStuffWorks finds out more.
Author's Note: 10 Last-minute Stays of Execution
In my 30-year career as a journalist, I've covered a number of murder cases. I've listed to some grisly courtroom testimony about extreme acts of violence and got to see the perpetrators close-up. I've also met the families of murder victims, and seen the heartache and trauma they've experienced. As a result, I don't have much sympathy for convicted killers, and I don't have any abstract moral qualms about the death penalty. In practical terms, however, I also know that capital punishment doesn't work very well, because ensuring that there aren't any wrongful executions necessitates an appeals process that can be lengthy, time-consuming, and extremely expensive to taxpayers. As a result, Randy Kraft, a California serial killer whose case I covered in the 1980s, was still sitting on death row at San Quentin prison 24 years after his conviction for 16 murders. I'm guessing that the cost of litigating his appeals and keeping him in segregated, high-security confinement all those years has cost taxpayers many additional millions of dollars, while providing little consolation to his victims' families.
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