Dying (of old age) on death row.

Gary Cone had his day in Court on Wednesday, December 10th. Over the last 28 years, Cone has had numerous days in Court. This day in court was before the United States Supreme Court. And this was not even his first trip to the United States Supreme Court.

In August of 1980, Cone, a decorated Vietnam vet and probable drug addict, led a crime spree through Memphis. He shot a police officer, robbed a jewelry store, led police on a high speed chase, car jacked an innocent bystander, shot at another, before breaking into the house of an elderly couple and savagely beating them to death.

Cone was caught and tried in 1982. There was never any doubt that Cone committed the crimes. He pled not guilty be reason of insanity. When someone pleads not guilty by reason of insanity, they admit the facts of the charges against them, but claim, because of their insanity, they were not legally responsible.

The jury rejected Cone’s argument and since 1982, Cone has been on death row at Tennessee’s Riverbend Maximum Security Prison.

Cone is now 60 years old. He has spent almost half of his life on death row. Cone should be an aberration, but he is not. Allegedly, Tennessee has a death penalty. Poll after poll shows strong support for the death penalty in Tennessee. Yet, since 1960, Tennessee has only executed three prisoners. In deed, since the death penalty was reenacted in Tennessee in 1977, more prisoners have died from old age and natural causes on death row than have had their sentences carried out.

There are a myriad of reasons why it has taken Cone’s case this long. Most of the blame is due to his case being tied up in Federal Court. In deed, Wednesday’s hearing before America’s top court was a part of his third Habeas Corpus lawsuit in Federal Court and the issue that got the case to the Supreme Court had nothing to do with whether Cone was guilty or not guilty, but deal with a technical issue of law.

Tennessee has 87 people on death row. On February 4, 2009, Steve Henley is scheduled to be the next prisoner executed in Tennessee. If he is executed, he will have been on death row for only 23 years.

For those on death row, there is some consolation. The odds still favor most of them dying of natural causes before their sentence is carried out.

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