The oldest inmate on Death Row beats the executioner – by dying

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The Independent US

A dicky heart has beaten the executioner to take the life of Viva Leroy Nash, the oldest man on death row, who has died at the age of 94.

The convicted murderer had been behind bars in various American prisons for most of the last 80 years, almost 30 of them awaiting execution. Once known as "Jail Houdini" because of his brash and sometimes briefly successful attempts to escape incarceration, Nash will now be remembered as the oldest person to die of natural causes while awaiting execution. His passing will revive debate about the sky-rocketing costs not just of administering capital punishment in America but also of keeping the infirm and obviously doddery behind bars.

"He had had several major heart attacks," his lawyer, Thomas Phalen of Phoenix noted. "It's a celebratory time because the man is dead, everyone can be at peace and we didn't have to go through the horror of an execution."

Nash, whose execution had been put off by successive appeals lodged on the basis of his reduced mental capacity, had in recent years been moved permanently into a state medical facility. He was described as almost totally deaf and blind as well as suffering from advanced dementia.

Recent statistics cited in a report on the detention system in California suggest that it costs taxpayers between $71,000 (£45,000) and $106,000 a year to keep an elderly prisoner behind bars, largely thanks to medical bills.

Nash had begun his first prison term in 1930, aged 15. After his release the first time, he killed a Connecticut police officer and was locked up for 25 years. He nearly died in 1965 when, as part of an escape attempt, he buried himself in a load of prison laundry and was almost suffocated.

When he got out in 1977, he murdered again, was thrown back in prison but managed somehow to be assigned to an off-site labour detail while in a Utah state prison from which he slipped away. A few weeks later, in 1982, he shot and killed a shop clerk in Phoenix and was finally sentenced to death the following year.