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Awaiting Death

The defendant is found guilty and sentenced to death by the jury. The judge on the case makes his last remarks before adjourning the court. Now, the defendant is escorted out of the courtroom and taken back to their cell. Now, the wait begins, and the future remains unknown. 


At the end of 2022, The Death Penalty Information Center reported there were 2,414 prisoners on death row in the 27 states that have not abolished the death penalty, with California and Florida being the top two states with the highest population. So far, in 2023 there have been a total of 11 executions that have taken place in Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, and Missouri. Out of the 11 executions that took place, most of the prisoners executed were white males. After being sentenced, the prisoners spent at least 13 years and up to 33 years on death row before they were executed. 


Being wrongfully convicted, many prisoners are still put on death row despite fighting and proving their innocence. The highest number of exonerations that have taken place was due to misconduct of police, prosecutors, and government officials. In 2021, approximately 78.8% of African Americans are wrongfully convicted due to police, prosecutor, and official misconduct and waited approximately 13.84 years before being exonerated. Prisoners who were convicted in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, waited an average of 22.6 years before being exonerated, while prisoners who were recently convicted only spend an average of 12 years


Prisoners on death row who were wrongfully convicted or awaiting execution, are treated more harshly than prisoners in the general population. Most prisoners on death row, are unable to take part in educational programs and have severe restrictions on exercise and visitation time. They have very limited time with other prisoners outside of their cells, and usually spend 23 hours a day alone and isolated in their cells. The level of uncertainty they face haunts them daily. 


Many prisoners on death row experience “death row syndrome” due to the constant loneliness and an increased restricted lifestyle compared to other prisoners. Prisoners often are psychologically affected and experience delusions, suicidal ideations, and insanity. In 2017, several Ohio prisoners waiting to be executed were found to have experienced childhood trauma, and several have mental illnesses, cognitive impairments, and intellectual disabilities. Despite regulations surrounding executing prisoners with these conditions, Ohio still executes people with mental impairments and illnesses.


After the ruling in Gregg vs. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled sentencing murderers to death wasn’t a violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, although, executing the mentally impaired was a violation of the Eight Amendments. Today, every state has different. 


Jarvis Jay Masters grew up in foster homes where he was bullied frequently. He spent time at the California Youth Authority and once he left, he was in a good place, working toward a better future for himself. In 1981, at 19 years old, Masters was charged with armed robbery after participating in a heist along with Sammy Lee and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. In 2001, a jury found Masters guilty of conspiracy to murder in the incident resulting in the prison guard’s death and sentenced him to death. Masters was denied a fair trial and several of his constitutional rights were violated during the trial. He also experienced prosecutorial misconduct. After appealing the sentence and waiting several years, Masters was denied, and his sentence remained the same. In 2005, Masters petitioned a writ of habeas corpus, but that also was later denied in 2020. In 2022, the Master’s legal team asked the federal court of Northern California to grant the writ of habeas corpus and exonerate Masters. Today, still on death row in the San Quentin state prison, Jarvis Masters lives with uncertainty about his future. 


Edited by: Kavya Venkateshwaran

Photo by: Associated Press


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