Update, Aug. 1, 3:07 p.m.: As Sam Brodey just noted on The Slatest, Ariel Castro was indeed sentenced today to life in prison plus 1,000 years. "I'm not a monster. I'm sick," Castro informed the court. Now he'll have a lot of time to try and get well.
On Thursday, Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro will be sentenced after pleading guilty last week to 937 charges, including rape, kidnapping, and aggravated murder. “He’s never coming out except nailed in a box or in an ash can,” said the Cuyahoga County prosecutor at the time of Castro’s plea, and he meant it: Not only is Castro expected to receive a life sentence, the state plans to tack on 1,000 additional years for good measure. Even considering the magnitude of Castro’s crimes, you’d be excused for thinking that a millennium in jail sounds a bit ridiculous, given that Ariel Castro is not Methuselah. But absurdly long prison sentences are actually a staple of the American justice system. Indeed, Castro’s 1,000-year sentence is far from the longest sentence ever handed down to an American inmate.
To be sure, 1,000-year sentences aren’t handed down very often. When they are, it’s usually because the death penalty isn’t an option, and because the crime in question is particularly revolting. Mass murderer Richard Speck, who raped and killed eight student nurses in Chicago in 1966, was originally sentenced to death for his crimes. The Supreme Court eventually reversed Speck’s death sentence, though, and Illinois was forced to find an alternative punishment for the killer. In 1972 an Illinois judge resentenced Speck to serve between 400 and 1,200 years in prison. (Ultimately he served 20—Speck died in prison in 1991.)
If we can’t kill you, then we’ll see you rot is a common theme when it comes to long sentences. In 1981, for example, an Alabama man named Dudley Wayne Kyzer was sentenced to death for murdering his wife, his mother-in-law, and another man. The sentence was overturned, and Kyzer was retried. “He doesn’t need mercy. He showed no mercy with the murders he committed. The time is long past in this case for Wayne Kyzer to be shown mercy,” the prosecutor told the jury, and the jury apparently agreed: They gave Kyzer two life sentences plus 10,000 years in prison. Though the sentence was touted for its potential deterrent effect on future offenders, its effect on Kyzer was almost entirely symbolic; Alabama state law maintains that inmates become eligible for parole “after serving one-third of the sentence or 10 years, whichever is less.”
That’s another point of these long sentences: to send a strong message that the prisoners in question should never, ever, ever be set free. In 1993 a Tulsa, Okla. jury sentenced two rapists to a cumulative 6,475 years in prison for kidnapping, raping, and robbing an elderly woman. The conviction was eventually reversed, the men were retried, and their sentences were quintupled: Darron Bennalford Anderson got 11,250 years in prison, while his associate, Allan Wayne McLaurin, got 21,250 years. (Three years later, an appeals court reduced Anderson’s sentence by 500 years.)
The harsh sentences were apparently motivated at least in part by displeasure with Oklahoma’s state laws, which, at the time, said that a life sentence effectively worked out to 45 years in prison, and that most prisoners could be paroled after serving 13 to 15 years. Anger over this sort of lenient prison math also worked against Charles Scott Robinson, an Oklahoma child rapist who, in 1994, was sentenced to 30,000 years in prison by what the Associated Press called a “judge who said he was weary of criminals serving only a portion of their time.” Though Robinson’s sentence was upheld on appeal, Judge James Lane’s dissenting opinion highlighted the absurdity of a 30,000-year prison stint. “Thirty thousand years ago, a blanket of glacial ice stood at the northern banks of the Ohio and Missouri Rivers,” Lane wrote. “Wooly mammoths, giant sloths, and passenger pigeons no doubt felt its chill. Thirty thousand years hence, man himself may be extinct. A sentence of this magnitude is, in my opinion, shocking and absurd.”
Speaking of absurd, in 1972, a Spanish mailman named Gabriel Granados was tried on charges of failing to deliver 42,768 letters. The state sought to imprison Granados for 384,912 years, or nine years for each letter he didn’t deliver. (Let the punishment fit the crime, after all!) The court ultimately sentenced the lazy mailman to 14 years and two months in prison. Ordinarily, that might seem like a harsh sentence for a nonviolent mail-related offense. Considering the alternative, though, Granados got off easy.