A Fictional United States circa 2017

Following up on my last post, here are some thoughts on a U.S. set up for one of my stories.

For various reasons, attitudes towards the death penalty in the U.S. and elsewhere in the West are different. It has had continued support and few if any countries have stopped carrying out executions for at least serious murder. Other forms of murder also carry a death penalty in many countries.

The U.S. still stands out in the West by having more crimes that carry death sentences, including kidnapping, rape, child rape/molestation, drug trafficking, a number of indirect forms of murder, among others.

In an attempt to counteract charges of applying the death penalty in a racist manner, most of the laws are written in a way that makes it hard for prosecutors to make plea deals in many potential capital crimes. Furthermore, judges and juries are often given little choice but to convict defendants for the crime carrying the mandatory death sentence, or acquitting them entirely.

On the other hand, police and prosecutors are held to a high standard. Any misconduct that leads to a false death sentence carries serious criminal penalties. If it actually leads to an execution, it can lead to murder charges that might carry their own death sentence.

Consequences for inadequate defense in a capital case are different, but just as harsh, including lifetime disbarment and hefty fines.

As the sentence of death is mandatory in most cases, and the ability to plea to a lesser charge isn’t an option in most cases, it is not only possible but common to have a death sentence result from a guilty or Alford’s plea (a concept that might not exist, or have quite the same legal meaning or impact).

The overall climate of law and order is different too. As DNA technology became useful, a law was created creating a national DNA registry in the U.S. Other countries also have theirs, and they regularly share them. So, 70% of the population, and well over 99% of the U.S. population (including otherwise undocumented immigrants) have their DNA in a database. Fingerprints and other identifying information is also kept.

Since the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment still exists, there has been some pushback against various methods of execution. This became especially true after states began occasionally filming executions for various purposes, and those films became public.

So, it has become common for states to have multiple methods of execution available. However, in almost every state, the choice must be made quickly, around the time of the sentence, and cannot be changed by the condemned. The state, on the other hand, may petition the court for a switch should it have cause.

Then, a few states (I might decide which later) require the individual to express a preference during the time between their conviction or plea and sentence, and even state it in court where the judge can choose to ignore it.

In addition to the methods used during the twentieth century in the U.S., other methods of execution in use include garrote, guillotine, and nitrogen asphyxiation. Shooting executions are carried out in a few different ways as well.

Based on some earlier numbers I ran, I’d expect somewhere around 400 executions each year, and could easily be much higher depending on how one looks at the changes I’ve suggested.  This adds up to more than seven a week.  Except that some weeks, like the weeks of major holidays, few if any state prisons would want to schedule an execution.

For scheduling reasons, executions would probably happen mostly mid-week.  Or more correctly they would be scheduled then.  At least some would still get postponed for hours or a day or two due to last minute appeals.

I do suspect a lot of variance between the states regarding their procedures as to when executions are performed.  Some would still perform them at midnight, the first moment the warrant becomes valid.  Others would schedule them earlier in the evening, or even during the day.  Daytime executions might become more common just to make things easier on scheduling for the staff.

I suspect the distribution of executions would be similar to the distribution of the prison population in the real-world.  So Texas, California, Florida, and Georgia would have considerably more executions; where Rhode Island, North Dakota, DC, and Vermont might go a year or two between executions.

Executions would rarely be big news.  Anything that happens nearly 400 times a year isn’t big news.

A few would make news.  Obviously, when the person who murdered a celebrity was executed, that would be news.  And chances are at some point each decade some at least minor or former celebrity would manage to run badly afoul of the law and end up on death row, and their execution would make some news.

After a condemned inmate is executed, their body is also not returned to the family.  In all of the jurisdictions where executions are carried out, the law mandates that once a sentence of death has been carried out, if the individual was healthy enough, and the method of execution did not damage the organs, all organs that can be will be harvested for transplant.  Then, the remains are cremated and buried, in a common grave for all persons executed at that prison for a given period.

A few factors can prevent one from receiving a mandatory sentence of death.

Age is one.  In every jurisdiction there is either an explicit or presumed age of responsibility below which no child can be held delinquent for a crime.  But beyond that, minors are treated differently in every state and DC where there is a death penalty, and the federal government will not charge juveniles.

In a couple of states, minors simply cannot be sentenced to death, but instead either are given a life sentence, or some form of lifetime probation after a standard juvenile sentence – no jurisdiction wants anyone who has committed a capital offense to live without at least lifetime consequences.  But most have some age above which a juvenile may be tried and sentenced as an adult, including receiving a sentence of death.

Two states, Indiana and Mississippi have neither an explicit age or responsibility nor a limit on how old a juvenile must be before being transferred to adult court.  So, while nobody has been executed under the age of 12 yet, many predict that it is just a mater of time before an ambitious prosecutor on a drug crusade in one of those states goes after a nine- or ten-year-old.