With capital punishment still active in a huge majority of the world, the debate still continues over whether or not it is a justifiable form of human intervention. Also known as the death penalty, the execution of criminals has been going on since the birth of mankind. Having been used in every country at least once during the course of time, the idea of ending ones life to serve as punishment stands as the ultimate penalty. From boiling someone to death, disembowelment, crucifixion, crushing, sawing, and decapitation— you name it we’ve done it. Thankfully, we’ve evolved (somewhat) and elected lethal injections as the most “humane” form of capital punishment in most countries.
As the debate goes on, the practice still continues, with over 3,000 people recorded as being on death row in the USA in 2013. Influencing movies such as The Life of David Gale, starring Kevin Spacey, novels such as The Green Mile by Stephen King, and even the name of a famous record company, death row has fascinated many for years. With inmates spending a number of years, if not decades, waiting for the day where they will be no longer, the obsession with death has occurred throughout the history of humanity. And with the last meal becoming somewhat of a ritual for inmates, the dish itself has become almost as fascinating as the prisoners themselves. From some spending their whole lives on death row to those who experience it for only a few weeks, it is often claimed that the isolation and uncertain future can often lead to inmates becoming mentally ill. Lauded as cruel, it is often common to see many prisoners attempting suicide, thus referred to as the ‘death row phenomenon’. So to take a look at this fascinating world of capital punishment, here are fifteen of the longest runs ever served on death row.
15. Jack Harry Smith – 38 Years
Convicted of robbery and murder in 1978, Jack Harry Smith became the oldest person ever on Texas’ death row, 38 years after the initial incident. Already on parole, Smith and a fellow accomplice decided to rob a Houston convenience store. However, during the robbery, there was an exchange of gunfire, and when the owner’s friend received a shot in the heart and head, he died instantly. Smith denied he was ever there, but a witness placed him at the scene, and his accomplice sold him out; he was sentenced to death.
Living on death row since 1978, Smith repeatedly voiced his opinions on the matter claiming, “I feel that the system is waiting for me to pass away of old age, I’m angry at the justice system, and at the courts for wasting taxpayers’ money”. Attempting an appeal on a number of occasions, as well as trying to escape, Smith’s prophecy eventually came true, as he died of natural causes at 78 years old, 38 of which were spent lingering on death row.
14. Glenn Ford – 30 Years
Since Netflix released the critically acclaimed documentary, Making a Murderer, the concept of wrongful convictions has risen its ugly head once more. Convicted of murder in 1984, Ford was the longest serving death row prisoner in the USA, before being fully exonerated in 2014. Sentenced to death for the shooting of a 58-year-old woman, the police initially had no evidence. However, as gun residue was later found on Ford’s left hand, he was arrested straight away. Unable to pay for representation, Ford was assigned two attorneys, who were extremely inexperienced. With prosecutors able to take advantage of the lack of experience, and the ruling that allowed an all Caucasian jury and judge, Ford was convicted and sentenced to die. However, in 2013, Ford’s sentence was quashed as it was discovered that two other men, who had been implicated earlier, had admitted to the murder. Released after 30 years on death row, Ford was never compensated for the injustice he endured, and succumbed to cancer a year later.
13. Umesh Reddy – 10 Years
Known as the Indian ‘Jack the Ripper’, Umesh Reddy is one of the most famous serial rapist/killers in Indian history. Convicted of nine cases in 2006, it is believed that he actually committed a lot more. Carefully targeting housewives when their husbands were at work, Reddy would gain entry to the house under false pretenses. Once inside, he would tie them up, rape them, and often choke them to death. With his victims dead, Reddy would then steal items of value (usually jewelry) in order to make it seem like a robbery, leaving police dumbfounded. It was only after the rape and murder of a 37-year-old woman that authorities got a lead. The woman’s 8-year-old son interrupted the crime before it was completed, and later testified against Reddy in court. Reddy managed to escape police custody twice, and rape another handful of women along the way, before finally being caught for good. Reddy was given a number of fines, sentenced to life imprisonment, and eventually to death. Reddy continues to appeal his sentence on a regular basis, despite the countless rejections. At 10 years, Reddy is India’s longest serving inmate on death row, with a date yet to be finalized.
12. Debra Brown – 17 Years
Though the majority of death row inmates are of the male persuasion, it’s not to say that there aren’t any women on board. After suffering from head trauma as a young child, Debra Brown was diagnosed as intellectually disabled, easily influenced, and with a severely low IQ. Upon meeting her future partner in crime and eventual lover, Alton Coleman, Brown had never once been in trouble with the law.
The pair went on to murder and rape a number of young girls and women (and even a 75-year-old man) throughout 1984. They were finally arrested after a six-state, two-month killing spree. Coleman and Brown were both sentenced to death, with Coleman executed by lethal injection in 2002. Due to Brown’s mental state and non-violent history, her original sentence was revoked and, instead, changed to life without parole. In some states, Brown is still subject to the death sentence, and so, is currently serving as one of the longest women on death row with 17 years still staring at prison walls. Unlikely to ever see the outside world again, Brown is still extremely unrepentant for her acts, sending a note to the judge that read, “I killed the b*tch and I don’t give a damn. I had fun out of it”.
11. Arthur Lee Giles – 38 Years
Convicted in 1978 for the murder of a husband and wife, and the attempted murder of their three children and grandmother, Arthur Lee Giles is currently one of the longest serving inmates in the world. While drunk, Giles and his accomplice, Aaron Jones, decided to rob the house of his previous employer. Sentenced to death, Giles has been on death row for 38 years, and counting. While maintaining that it was he who shot the man and woman, he continues to appeal his sentence as it was Jones who made sure they were dead by brutally stabbing them multiple times. Having already executed Jones by lethal injection in 2007, it seems it’s only a matter of time before Giles sees the same fate.
10. Cynthia Coffman – 30 Years
Convicted for the murder of four women in 1986, along with her partner James Marlow, Cynthia Coffman is one of the longest serving women currently on death row. Known as the ‘Folsom Wolf’, Marlow was already known to authorities and was actually serving time in prison when the two originally met. Declaring her undivided love, Coffman got the tattoo ‘Property of the Folsom Wolf’ on her lower back, and subsequently embarking on a dark path that shocked the nation.
Taking part in a murdering spree between the months of October and November, Coffman and Marlow stalked and strangled four women. The fun was over when they mistakenly left one of their victims’ chequebook in a bag of trash alongside documentation bearing their names.
Once arrested, the two were sentenced to death. Similarly to her fellow death row partners, Coffman regularly files for appeal, stating that she suffered from Battered Woman Syndrome, and that she was brainwashed into committing the crimes. She has been on death row for 30 years now, and as with the others, it seems unlikely that her sentence will be repealed.
9. Ronald Adrin Gray – 28 Years
Enlisting in the army at the tender age of 18 in 1984, Ronald Adrin Gray was a military cook, holding the rank of specialist. Accused of two counts of murder, two counts of attempted murder, rape, sexual assault, and a number of other offences on a military reservation in 1987, Gray pleaded guilty to all the charges. Sentenced to life imprisonment, Gray was also tried by a military court due to his rank and service. He was unanimously sentenced to death, at only 22 years old. With an initial execution date set for December 10, 2008, Gray appealed on a number of grounds, pushing the date further and further back. However, as of 2016, no further action has been made, with a date set to be released soon, ending Gray’s 28 years as the longest inmate ever on military death row.
8. Frank Spisak – 28 Years
Modelling himself on Adolf Hitler with a black parted hairstyle and a toothbrush mustache, Neo Nazi Frank Spisak was on a mission, by his own account, to hunt and kill as many people as possible. As well as dressing like Hitler, Spisak sometimes dressed in women’s clothing and referred to himself as Frances. He shot and killed two men and one teenager, and attempted to kill many more. Arrested after firing a gun outside of his bedroom window in 1982, Spisak claimed he acted on his hatred of gays, blacks, and Jews. Found guilty and sentenced to death, Spisak appealed a number of times, citing mental illness as the cause. Though lawyers tried to argue that he suffered from bipolar disorder, Spisak didn’t help himself by constantly ‘Nazi saluting’ the jury and reciting verses from Hitler’s Mein Kampf. On death row for 28 years, Spisak received the lethal injection in 2011, with his final words being a German recital from the book of Revelations.
6. Lester Bower – 31 Years
Accused of killing four men at an aircraft hangar in 1983, Texan Lester Bower spent a whopping 31 years on death row. With no previous criminal record, prosecutors claimed that Bower had shot and killed four men while trying to steal an aircraft that he had previously agreed to pay for. Despite admitting his involvement in the purchase of the plane, he passionately denied killing the men, which he continued to profess until his sentence was carried out in 2010. Bower appealed a number of times, however, with one rejection after the other, time had run out for the convicted murderer. Commenting on his relentless attempt to clear his name, Bower stated that, “Once it gets in the record you can’t get it out. Like a bad case of termites, you just can’t get rid of it.”
5. Sadamichi Hirasawa – 32 Years
Probably one of the most shocking crimes to occur in Japanese history, the story of Sadamichi Hirasawa captivated not only Japan, but the whole world. On a cold day in January of 1948, a man claiming to be a health official sent by the US government, poisoned and murdered twelve office workers. Declaring that there had been an outbreak of dysentery, the man presented a pill, which sixteen willing staff members of a bank gladly took. Once the people were unconscious, he then proceeded to steal everything he could find, walking away with just under 160,000 yen (about $2,000 back then). With similar cases all around the city, police realized that a business card was left at each scene, and eventually traced the card back to Hirasawa.
Maintaining his innocence, the case was shrouded in mystery, with many believing Hirasawa to have been framed. Nevertheless, Hirasawa finally confessed— though it was reported that he was subject to torture to extract the confession. Sentenced to death, Hirasawa’s legal team appealed a number of times, but all requests were hastily rejected. Having spent 32 years on death row, Hirasawa became the longest serving person in Japanese history, with most people still believing him to be innocent, including many judges who refused to sign his death warrants. Failing to get a release, Hirasawa died in prison in 1987, leaving behind a verdict that was still very much undecided.
4. Robert Excell White – 25 Years
Nicknamed ‘Excell the Executioner’ by the Texan police force, Robert Excell White was convicted in 1974 for the robbery and killing of a grocery store owner, two customers, and the stabbing of a gun collector. Upon robbing the grocery store, White proclaimed that he “wasn’t going to leave any witnesses,” then stole a measly $60 from the cash register, all for the life of 3 men. However, the executioner soon became the ‘excutionee’, as Robert stayed lingering on death row for almost 25 years. Believing himself to be invincible, White often arrogantly stated how he thought the state would be reluctant to kill him, due to his world famous status as Texas’ longest serving death row prisoner.
When Barbara Jean Alderman was found murdered face down in a creek, authorities were quick to suspect her loving husband. However, without a speck of forensic evidence to connect him to the crime, Jack Alderman was charged on the basis of a second man involved. Convicted in 1975 for the slaying of his wife, it was John Brown, a local drug addict, who implicated Alderman in the murder of his wife’s death. Originally confessing, Brown then claimed that Alderman had promised to pay him on the life insurance that he had taken out on his wife prior to the murder. Sentenced to death, Alderman professed his innocence, even refusing plea bargains that were offered to him, due to the implications they would hold. Pleading ‘not guilty’ until the very end, Alderman became one of the longest serving inmates in US history, racking up 34 years under his death row belt.
2. Billy Joe Woods – 21 Years
After breaking into an elderly woman’s house in 1975, police found suspect Billy Joe Woods carrying a television and a number of stolen items down the street. It was later revealed that Woods had beaten, raped, and smashed the woman’s head in with a frying pan, he was quickly arrested and sentenced to death. However, as soon as Woods was sentenced, appeals began to surface with claims that Woods had undergone a controversial psychological examination. As defense lawyers tried to pass off Woods as mentally unstable, the judge ruled otherwise, referring to a prior sexual assault he was involved in. After serving nearly 21 years on death row, Woods was finally put to death, expressing to his lawyers that “he had a long time to think about what he had done”.
1. Gary Alvord – 40 Years
The best for last … serving a record-breaking 40 years on death row, it was natural causes that took the life of Gary Alvord. Convicted in 1974 for the murder of three women, Alvord was immediately sentenced to death. Alvord saw over 70 inmates meet their end, leaving him counting down the hours until he met his own fate. However, since his original sentencing, Alvord was repeatedly diagnosed with various mental illnesses. Oddly enough, this diagnosis saved him from the dreaded execution chamber. Doctors argued that a man suffering from schizophrenia or personality disorders was not capable of understanding capital punishment, and so, the state ruled that Alvord was not fit to undergo the death penalty. Left to rot on death row instead, Alvord was locked away in solitary confinement for 40 years, until his death at 66 years old.