This week, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals remanded the case of death row inmate Larry Swearingen back to a lower court, reversing a prior court ruling to allow new testing on DNA evidence in his case. Swearingen has been on death row since 2000 for the 1998 rape, kidnapping and murder of 19-year-old Melissa Trotter in Montgomery County. Swearingen has maintained his innocence and has already had his execution date delayed four times, part of a long appeals process that takes way too long for advocates of swift justice. In fact, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the average length of time between conviction and execution in Texas is 170 months, or just over 14 years.
Whether the process takes too long, or is unjust and should be done away with completely, people on both sides of the capital punishment debate are frustrated with the way it often plays out. James Rytting, who represents Swearingen and other death row inmates, says there are many reasons for all the delays. "There are new developments, particularly scientific evidence, and states reasonably are being a lot more cautious, because people are being found innocent because of DNA evidence," he tells KTRH. Another reason death penalty cases often drag out--mental health questions. "Many defendants are mentally ill, seriously mentally ill," says Rytting. "And you have not only appeals, but you then have an issue about competency to be executed."
While death penalty critics and advocates alike are often critical of the slow pace of the system, the convicts themselves are apparently not enjoying it either. Rytting explains that being on death row isn't the same as being in regular prison. "I think there's still this perception that they get to lay around and enjoy three square meals--no--it is hell on Earth on death row," he says. "It should be eliminated--that would solve all these issues...with everybody getting their shorts twisted about how long it takes."