A Quicker Pace On Death Row

The rate of executions for death row inmates is escalating across the country as more prisoners exhaust the legal options to avert the ultimate sentence. CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart reports.

If all the court dates hold, six executions will take place in Texas this week. Six more will follow next week.

And, if polls are to be believed, from 70 percent to 80 percent of Americans think that's absolutely the way things should be. For years, the public -- and politicians especially -- have complained that the process was taking too long. But if this January is any indication, the logjam may be about to break.

CBS News took a close look at January's condemned and their crimes. Some have been granted temporary stays, but many have not. Between them, they have killed at least 30 people, raped six, and kidnapped five. They range from paid hitmen to cop killers to child beaters. Some have been on death row for more than 20 years.

Five of them come from Texas, where prison official Larry Fitzgerald says they've executed so many so quickly lately that they have the process down to a science.

"Obviously, we learn from doing the executions. If I were to use one word to describe the process, I would say it's clinical," says Fitzgerald.

And it is increasingly impersonal. In Texas, for example, where sheriffs once did the job of executions, it's now a team of veteran volunteers. The coroner even has a reserved parking spot outside the death chamber. Inside, a tradition has evolved over who stands where and does what.

Odd as it may sound, guards claim the quickening pace of executions has actually had a calming effect on death row populations where uncertainty is the greatest fear.

"It's kind of like, you know folks who are standing in line at the deli counter who've drawn a number... they've all got a number and they all have to wait their time in line - to wait until their number is called," says former prison warden Don Cabana.

Don Cabana says he saw that firsthand while a warden in Mississippi, where he participated in four executions and carried out two personally.

"I did two executions within five weeks of each other and that process was almost numbing," recalls Cabana.

What January's numbers suggest is that the segment of death row inmates who have successfully dodged the executioner for 10, 15, 20 years or longer is reaching critical mass and clearly running out of time.

"When the logjam finally breaks, we're going to be executing people quicker than we can refill the lethal injection syringes," says Cabana.

Meaning a lot more work for caretakers at the Texas penitentiary burial ground where "X" marks the grave of those who were executed.

Reported By Jim Stewart
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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