Washington halts the death penalty, but should it?

Governor Jay Inslee of Washington state has enacted a moratorium on capital punishment.  Anti-capital punishment activists are relishing the success and death row inmates are resting a little easier knowing they’ll never meet the fate they imperiled upon their victims.  What purpose does a political move like this serve?  Anti-capital punishment activists claim the punishment is barbaric and is nothing more than state sanctioned murder, government perpetuated revenge.  A rather pollyannic vision, in my opinion.  They often assert that executions don’t deter crime, but this isn’t true either.

I for one don’t believe punishments for crimes need to be wholly aimed toward reform.  Not every prison sentence needs to teach a lesson.  Sometimes a crime is so heinous that it warrants mere punishment.  Especially since the majority (pretty much all) of criminals know what they’ve done is wrong and unacceptable.  There’s little to learn from a stint in prison.

However, if for nothing else, execution for capital crimes does in fact have a deterrent effect on murder, studies show.

(FoxNews) — “Science does really draw a conclusion. It did. There is no question about it,” said Naci Mocan, an economics professor at the University of Colorado at Denver. “The conclusion is there is a deterrent effect.”

A 2003 study he co-authored, and a 2006 study that re-examined the data, found that each execution results in five fewer homicides, and commuting a death sentence means five more homicides. “The results are robust, they don’t really go away,” he said. “I oppose the death penalty. But my results show that the death penalty (deters) — what am I going to do, hide them?”

Statistical studies like his are among a dozen papers since 2001 that capital punishment has deterrent effects. They all explore the same basic theory — if the cost of something (be it the purchase of an apple or the act of killing someone) becomes too high, people will change their behavior (forego apples or shy from murder).

[…]

Among the conclusions:

• Each execution deters an average of 18 murders, according to a 2003 nationwide study by professors at Emory University. (Other studies have estimated the deterred murders per execution at three, five and 14).

• The Illinois moratorium on executions in 2000 led to 150 additional homicides over four years following, according to a 2006 study by professors at the University of Houston.

• Speeding up executions would strengthen the deterrent effect. For every 2.75 years cut from time spent on death row, one murder would be prevented, according to a 2004 study by an Emory University professor.

I understand the point of view of those who oppose the death penalty.  But I also believe capital punishment to be an appropriate response to certain crimes.  What often gets in the way is a nagging what if.  What if the jury got it wrong?  What if they really didn’t do the crime?  This rationale exonerates too much though.  Couldn’t we use this same what if reasoning for any crime, including fines and prison?  Repeal life sentences because what if the man serving life is actually innocent?  Repeal 20 year sentences because, what if?  Is it just that a man lose two decades of his life for a crime he didn’t commit?

It’s safe to say that there are exponentially more people wrongly fined for motor vehicle violations than who are executed wrongly.  This is a ridiculous comparison, I know.  But if what’s important is the principle that an innocent person shouldn’t pay for a crime they didn’t commit, we therefore should equally be advocating for the repeal of all criminal punishment… because, what if.

Capital punishment does have a deterrent effect on murder.  But even if it didn’t, the crimes committed by some people are just so perverse against their human brothers and sisters that they simply need to pay with their lives.  I believe the governor of Washington is motivated by the best of intentions.  But society needs justice, and so do the victims.

Comments

  1. They often assert that executions don’t deter crime, but this isn’t true either.

    I won’t debate the merits of capital punishment, since you already know where I stand. However, I’m not sure this statement is accurate – regardless of the few cited studies. If you look at the type of people who commit murder, and the lives they led up to it, you’d question the results of the study, too. These people gangbang, sell drugs, and live lifestyles that they know could get them killed at any second – yet it doesn’t change them.

  2. I think Dennis Prager says it best when he describes capital punishment in a way that indicates how much we value life. We value life so much that to take life unjustifiably demands the life of the murderer be taken. Letting the murderer live suggests the victim’s life was not as highly valued that the murderer should not also die. This is a rather clumsy paraphrasing of his position, but it begins with the first sentence above.

  3. John,

    My problem with the death penalty is the inevitable squandering of tax dollars in appeals and subsistence for the supposedly condemned inmate. It takes millions of dollars, valuable court resources, and many years to execute someone, thus rendering the original sentence and the idea of “valuing life” almost meaningless.

    Also, statistics prove that over 90% of criminals on death row cannot afford to hire an attorney, presenting two problems: (1) the squandering of tax dollars for court appointed attorneys; and (2) court appointed attorneys are often overworked, underpaid, and inexperienced, leading to inadequate legal representation. Fact is, rich people have a far better chance of avoiding the death penalty than do poor people.

    It’s too discriminatory and making it less so is too expensive.

    • In the vast majority of capital cases the defendant has an opportunity for a plea bargain to get life instead of the death penalty. They are often too over confident, or naive, or something, and reject the deal in hopes of being found not guilty on what they believe is a mitigating technicality, or that they can see how the trial is going then try to accept the deal, but by that time its off the table.

      Lawyers, even court appointed lawyers for capital cases are not the ordinary court appointed public defenders. They may be in the earliest stages, but most states theres regular attorneys who volunteer to take these cases for what the court would pay for precisely the reasons you mention. But even if it is the same court appointed public defender, when on capital trials, their current caseload is removed from them and given to others in the PD’s office.

      Theres an impression that poor capital offenders are railroaded throughout the system, but thats rare. Capital cases are treated very different than other felonies and misdemeanors

  4. In the vast majority of capital cases the defendant has an opportunity for a plea bargain to get life instead of the death penalty.

    This isn’t always the case, so I’m not sure why you’re mentioning it…Regardless, people shouldn’t be punished for doing what is their right to do…

    Lawyers, even court appointed lawyers for capital cases are not the ordinary court appointed public defenders. They may be in the earliest stages, but most states theres regular attorneys who volunteer to take these cases for what the court would pay for precisely the reasons you mention.

    This isn’t true in many cases and I can provide studies proving it isn’t true.

    But even if it is the same court appointed public defender, when on capital trials, their current caseload is removed from them and given to others in the PD’s office.

    Even if true, it still doesn’t take away from the fact that many are underpaid and incredibly inexperienced – contrary to your belief that each defendant is somehow magically furnished with their own Johnnie Cochran.

    Theres an impression that poor capital offenders are railroaded throughout the system, but thats rare.

    No, it’s not rare – especially for African-Americans. It’s completely arbitrary.

    According to the New Jersey Supreme Court, “There is unsettling statistical evidence indicating that cases involving killers of white victims are more likely to progress to a penalty phase than cases involving killers of African-American victims.”

    • Public defenders may be inexperienced in capital cases, not law in general. But this it true for every attorney.

      People arent railroaded through the system. Remember, theyre murderers and rapists. They dont think long term and I would argue make very poor decisions about most things. Ive been inside the courts, ive been in the cell blocks when prisoners are talking with their attorneys, they just dont think. So many times they are under the impression that “they got nuthin on me” when they sold the dope to a cop.

      Most of what looks like the attorney making stupid decisions is actually what the defendant told them to do.

      I knew dozens of PDs who were perpetually stymied by theor client’s insistence on dojng something they shouldnt have.

  5. John,

    From The New York Times,

    Dozens of inmates on death row lack lawyers for their appeals, in part because private law firms are increasingly unwilling to take on burdensome, expensive and emotionally wrenching capital cases, death penalty lawyers say.

    The shortage of counsel to help death row inmates file state appeals and federal habeas corpus petitions challenging their convictions and sentences places them at risk of missing crucial filing deadlines, possibly preventing them from raising appeal issues.

    The situation has potentially dire consequences, experts say, because two out of three appealed death sentences are set aside because of errors by defense lawyers at trial or prosecutorial misconduct, according to the most comprehensive death penalty study to date, by lawyers and criminologists at Columbia University.

    The situation is most troublesome in Alabama and Georgia, the only two states that do not guarantee counsel to death row inmates after a direct appeal to the highest state court. These inmates largely rely on volunteer lawyers to raise additional claims in subsequent state reviews and federal habeas corpus petitions, in which federal courts examine proceedings in state courts for error.

    In Alabama, about 40 of the approximately 185 death row inmates — some within five months of filing deadlines for state appeals — do not have counsel, said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama. Mr. Stevenson said his five-lawyer staff had taken on more than 100 death penalty cases, ”which is way more than we should be involved in.”

    The seven-lawyer staff of the Georgia Resource Center is juggling 135 capital cases and must decide whether to add 12 more unrepresented inmates, said Thomas H. Dunn, the center’s executive director. ”It’s embarrassing to have to go out and beg people to take these cases,” Mr. Dunn said.

    The shortage of competent lawyers has taken its toll even in states that guarantee the right to counsel after the initial direct appeal. In Louisiana, at least 10 of about 52 inmates in the appeals process are without lawyers, said Denise LeBoeuf, director of the Capital Post-Conviction Project in New Orleans.

    And of the about 600 inmates on California’s death row, at least 161 have no lawyers to handle their direct appeals, and 72 others have no counsel for federal habeas corpus petitions, said Robert D. Reichman, automatic appeals monitor for the California Supreme Court. As a result, Mr. Reichman said, some inmates with death sentences dating from 1996 and 1997 have not begun appeals.

    Things are not as simple as you make them seem, John.

  6. John,

    Any lawyer worth his salt will tell you that trial law is different than the lofty theories learned in school, and the fact is many public defenders are too inexperienced to have navigated the process before being saddled with complex cases.

    I still don’t understand your point. You’re basically saying that since offenders exercise their right to trial they deserve what they get…Fine, if you want to make that argument. But it’s demonstrably true that some offenders are taken to trial without plea bargains being offered, and most of the time it involves a black defendant and a white victim.

    • Its very rare that any defendant isnt offered some plea deal.

      And it’s common in any state that of you take your case to trial you get the maximum sentence. That’s true even for traffic violations.

  7. John,

    I’m well aware of that. It’s even worse at trial because organizations like Northwestern University don’t help until the appeals process, so defendants are stuck with often inexperienced public defenders. Regardless, appealing a sentence is a right.

    It may be rare but it’s not unheard of. And still, defendants have a right to a trial by jury. You’re basically saying “screw ’em” for doing what is their right to do.

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