Emptying Death Row: More U.S. Executions

January 18, 1985

Report Outline
Resurgence of Executions
Constitutional Questions
Moral, Pragmatic Issues
Special Focus

Resurgence of Executions

Unresolved Debate Over Capital Punishment

Alpha Otis Stephens, 39, died strapped to Georgia's varnished oak electric chair shortly after midnight Dec. 12. The execution ended 10 years of appeals following Stephens' 1974 conviction for the murder of Roy Asbell, who was taken to a field and shot twice in the head after interrupting a burglary. Stephens declined to see a chaplain and had no final words. The first two-minute, 2,080-volt electrical charge caused his hooded body to snap forward and his fists to clench, but it failed to kill him. Witnesses saw Stephens struggle for breath in the six minutes allowed for his body to cool from about 140 degrees before doctors examined him and found Stephens still alive. Warden Ralph Kemp ordered the procedure repeated. Stephens was pronounced dead at 12:36 a.m.

Outside the Jackson, Ga., prison, 28 people demonstrated against the execution. They expressed a view, though apparently a minority view, that capital punishment is barbaric, futile and wrong, both morally and legally. The capital punishment arguments, pro and con, are growing in volume and stridency as executions become increasingly frequent.

Stephens became the 20th of 21 persons executed last year in the United States and the 31st since the Supreme Court restored capital punishment in 1976 after a four-year moratorium. In the first 16 days of 1985, four people were put to death. The quickening pace came as many inmates on death row neared the end of a series of appeals and as the courts became increasingly impatient with sanctioning lengthy delays. “The death penalty is back with a vengeance,” said the Rev. Joseph Ingle, who counsels inmates in Nashville, Tenn. Thirty-eight states now have death penalty laws; 33 have prisoners on death row. The number of persons under sentence of death reached a record 1,464 as of Dec. 20, an increase of about 265 over the year before, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
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Nov. 19, 2010  Death Penalty Debates
Sep. 23, 2005  Death Penalty Controversies
Nov. 16, 2001  Rethinking the Death Penalty
Jan. 08, 1999  Death Penalty Update
Mar. 10, 1995  Death Penalty Debate
Jul. 13, 1990  Death Penalty Debate Centers on Retribution
Jan. 18, 1985  Emptying Death Row: More U.S. Executions
Jan. 10, 1973  Death Penalty Revival
Jul. 17, 1963  Punishment by Death
Aug. 14, 1953  Death Penalty
Feb. 16, 1943  Treason
Jun. 21, 1927  The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti
Death Penalty
Domestic Issues