Does the Death Penalty Require Death Row? The Harm of Legislative Silence

68 Pages Posted: 5 Apr 2015 Last revised: 18 Apr 2017

Date Written: May 28, 2016


This Article addresses the substantive question, “Does the death penalty require death row?” and the procedural question, “Who should decide?”

In most capital punishment states, prisoners sentenced to death are held, because of their sentences alone, in far harsher conditions of confinement than other prisoners. Often, this means solitary confinement for the years and even decades until their executions.

Despite a growing amount of media attention to the use of solitary confinement, most scholars and courts have continued to assume that the isolation of death-sentenced prisoners on death row is an inevitable administrative aspect of capital punishment. To the extent scholars have written about death row, they have focused on its harshness. None has objected to the fact that prison administrators are the ones who have decided to maintain death row in most capital punishment states.

This Article addresses for the first time the authority of prison administrators to establish or retain death row. It begins by exploring the nature of this death row decision, and concludes that death row is rational only if its intended purpose is to punish. This conclusion leads to the second and more significant claim in the Article: that only legislatures are competent to require death row. This claim is grounded in the need for democratic legitimacy and public deliberation in the imposition of punishment, in the separation of powers, and in the principle of legality.

Death row should be abolished unless legislatures choose to retain it, expressly and deliberately, for retributive or deterrent reasons.

Keywords: death row, death penalty, punishment, legislation, legal process, federal courts, prison conditions

JEL Classification: K14

Suggested Citation

McLeod, Marah, Does the Death Penalty Require Death Row? The Harm of Legislative Silence (May 28, 2016). Ohio State Law Journal, Vol. 77, No. 3, p. 525, 2017 , Columbia Law School Public Law & Legal Theory Paper No. 14-464, Available at SSRN:

Marah McLeod (Contact Author)

Notre Dame Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 780
Notre Dame, IN 46556-0780
United States
3127713448 (Phone)
3127713448 (Fax)

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