Slate's Explainer: Early Morning Executions

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Slate senior editor Andy Bowers explains why executions often take place shortly after midnight. In the most recent case, Stanley Tookie Williams' process of lethal injection began exactly one minute into Tuesday morning, and he was officially declared dead 34 minutes later.


Tookie Williams' execution was complete at 12:30 AM Pacific time, though it was scheduled at 12:01, and that got the Explainer team at the online magazine Slate wondering why executions are often scheduled for just past midnight. Here with the answer is Slate's Andy Bowers.

ANDY BOWERS reporting:

The main reason is that a death warrant is often good for just one day. In California, if the execution is not carried out during that 24-hour period, the state must re-petition the court for another death warrant. Scheduling the time of death for 12:01 AM gives the state as much time as possible to deal with last-minute legal appeals and temporary stays, which have a way of eating up numerous hours. One other advantage of holding executions in the middle of the night is that the rest of the prison's inmate population is locked down and presumably asleep. That minimizes the threat of any sort of unrest at the appointed hour.

However, holding such an important event in the middle of the night presents its own challenges. In 1997, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor told an audience why it's hard for her and her colleagues to receive last-minute stay requests so late. `Dispensing justice at that hour of the morning is difficult to say the least,' she said, `and we have an obligation to give our best efforts in every one of these instances.' Since then, a few states, including Texas and Arizona, have switched to holding executions in the afternoon or evening in order to make the process slightly easier for judges, guards and the families of victims.

CHADWICK: Andy Bowers is a Slate senior editor.

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