[Editor’s Note: The following is in reference to the case of Troy Davis, an unfairly convicted human being who is scheduled to be executed in two weeks… If you’re not familiar with the story, Troy Davis was convicted of murdering a Georgia police officer in 1991. Nearly twenty years later, Davis remains on death row — even though the case against him has fallen apart.
The case against him consisted entirely of witness testimony which contained inconsistencies even at the time of the trial. Since then, all but two of the state’s non-police witnesses from the trial have recanted or contradicted their testimony. Many of these witnesses have stated in sworn affidavits that they were pressured or coerced by police into testifying or signing statements against Troy Davis.In addition, nine individuals have signed affidavits implicating Sylvester Coles, the leading alternative suspect.]
The other night, during the GOP debate, the biggest applause line came when Texas Governor Rick Perry, a man who has sanctioned the deaths of 234 people (more than any other governor in US history), admitted he has never lost a wink of sleep over the matter. There was a couple of telling moments. Earlier in the debate a question about 9/11, and President Obama’s decision to attack and execute Osama bin Laden drew not a single clap. The other occurred the following night during President Obama’s speech on a proposed jobs bill, when not one single conservative applauded for teachers, firemen, policemen, and collective bargaining.
I can’t say I am surprised by such reactions, since it is well-known that the conservative mindset tends toward authoritarianism. Still, these reactions, I thought to myself, make it entirely possible that today’s conservatives was what Shirley Jackson envisioned when she wrote The Lottery.
Today I am not going into details about the Troy Davis case, though, whatever your feelings about state-sanctioned murder, his case should worry you because it’s likely we’re murdering an innocent man for a crime he didn’t commit. I think we might disagree on the pros and cons of capital punishment, but we should all be in agreement that justice should be, well, just. His case is almost lost but if you care, please sign a petition for the Georgia Board of pardons to consider (click here)
Not long ago, I witnessed a frustrated mother physically punishing one child for hitting his sibling. “You. Don’t. Hit. Your. Bro-ther,” she railed loudly, punctuating each syllable with a hard slap to the head, hand, and butt. It amazes me how many parents, claiming to teach respect and dignity, make no connection to the fact that by hitting a child, you’re also teaching them that the way to get your way is through physical aggression and dominance. I’m not surprised these two children fought incessantly for their mother was reinforcing their behavior.
Since as far back as the nineteenth century, evidence has shown that there is no relationship between severity of punishment and crime rate. Would Americans do the same today if it were demonstrated to them that killing criminals doesn’t make the streets any safer? It’s hard to say, but I seriously doubt it. We’re a vengeful group that worships a vengeful god.
To be sure, many support capital punishment for other reasons. For example, many individuals support electrocuting, poisoning, or shooting people who fail to respect the sacredness of human life. Because you killed someone, we will kill you seems to be the rationale. This is somewhat analogous to the mother teaching her children non-violence by demonstrating violent behavior.
The United States is nearly alone developed nations: Most industrialized nations have come to regard death penalty in the same most regard slavery: it’s morally wrong.
Opponents against the death penalty have more than morality on their side as arguments, however. For example, there is the very real possibility of executing someone innocent and the fact that race (of both convicted and victim) and class is a deciding factor in who actually gets executed. One Texas defendant was executed though his legal counsel fell asleep numerous times during the proceedings. Overwhelmingly, the color of one’s skin is the leading factor in who gets executed (click here). Two of the country’s foremost researchers on race and capital punishment, law professor David Baldus and statistician George Woodworth, along with colleagues in Philadelphia, conducted a careful analysis of race and the death penalty in Philadelphia, for example, which revealed that the odds of receiving a death sentence are nearly four times (3.9) higher if the defendant is black. These results were obtained after analyzing and controlling for case differences such as the severity of the crime and the background of the defendant. The data were subjected to various forms of analysis, but the conclusion was clear: blacks were being sentenced to death far in excess of other defendants for similar crimes (click here).
But that’s a topic I won’t get into at this moment. Right now, let’s just look at capital punishment’s effects on crime. The question I’m putting forth here is whether capital punishment is a better deterrent than life imprisonment. The answer, according to the evidence, is that the two penalties are both equally ineffective.
At first glance, it seems like common sense that the looming threat of losing one’s life would keep would-be criminals in line. However, a closer, more intelligent, look reveals the majority of murders are committed 1) during a moment of rage, 2) under the influence of drugs and alcohol, or 3) unexpectedly, in the course of committing another crime, such as a robbery. In any of these cases, the killer doesn’t sit down and rationally weigh the pros and cons of what will happen when he is apprehended, so a consideration of the death penalty isn’t going to stop him.
In fact, critical, careful thought about why people break the law not only leads us to question the effectiveness of capital punishment in particular, but also presents a challenge to the idea that incarcerating more people for longer periods of time is a rational response to crime in general. Want proof? Well, put this in your pipe and smoke it for a bit: Despite the fact that the US already incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation in the world, crimes rates are far higher than in most other countries. The conservative/ neoconservative assumption that crime rates were rising because the “costs” of crime in America were too low, is simply put, wrong. In fact, there is credible evidence that shows that too much incarceration serves to destabilize communities, therefore making those communities less safe (click here)
But I digress, the question at hand is whether capital punishment is a better deterrent than life imprisonment. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that capital punishment isn’t a deterrent since criminologists have never found any crime-reducing advantage correlated to capital punishment. Actually, there was one (much-celebrated) study by an economist, Isaac Ehrlich, that claimed to find support for the “fact” that each additional execution resulted in eight prevented homicides. The problem was Ehrlich’s study was seriously flawed. It hinged on the on the fact that more murders were committed in the 1960s, when fewer executions were taking place. Of course, he ignored regional differences in the murder rate and other possible reasons for the increase in homicides (the easier availability of guns, for one). In addition, it turns out that other crimes of violence — the kind that had never been punishable by death — increased even more rapidly than homicides. Hmmmm…
In any case, other researchers have since tried to look for and failed to find the effects that Ehrlich arrived at. This makes sense considering the fact that economists have a long-standing poor record in research, and this particular study contradicted everything done before then. In 1978, the National Academy of Sciences studied and rejected Ehrlich’s methodology (he used a technique known as regression analysis) and concluded that there was no useful evidence on the deterrent effect of capital punishment. In other words, we don’t know. And surely a practice as drastic as killing someone should be considered only if we do know that it makes our lives better and our communities safer.
But researchers being the dense people they are, two leading criminologists decided that just in case regression analyses did make sense in this context, it was worth giving it another shot. They studied homicides and executions in New York State from every month from 1907 to 1963 and found that the death penalty not only failed to reduce the murder rate but actually seemed to increase it. On average, two additional murders occurred during the month following the execution. These researchers extrapolated that the death penalty had what they termed a “brutalizing effect” that was most likely due to criminals taking their cue from the state and imitating its violence. Sounds like parents who beat their children to me!
The researchers summarized, “The lesson of the execution, then, may be to devalue life [and to teach] that it is correct and appropriate to kill those who have gravely offended us.” Another writer put it more succinctly in the Journal of Law and Criminology, “Use of the death penalty by the state, despite an intention to convey the message that killing is unacceptable, may convey the opposite message to the public.” In other words (and as all parents should already know): action speaks louder than words.
Of course, the methodology used by these researchers is as equally debatable as it was when Ehrlich used it. However, it still follows that, using the same methodology, the conclusion remains the same: the death penalty does not act as a deterrent against homicides. In fact, there has never been a case where homicides went up after a state abolished capital punishment. In addition, the states with the highest murder rates tend to be those where the death penalty is used. Other research has found that the same is true globally. One study combed through old crime records to what happened in twelve countries that had abolished capital punishment between 1890 and 1968 and found that “abolition was followed more often than not by absolute decreases in homicide rates.” [emphasis added]
Anyone seriously concerned in making our cities safer would do better to look into the real root causes of crime. The consensus among those who have looked at this issue is that capital punishment is not a deterrent to murder. Anyone claiming to be pro death under the guise of being pro “law and order,” should probably reconsider their beliefs. And any human being who states they can sleep peacefully after ordering the murder of another human being is quite possibly a sociopath. But we seem to like to elect those into office.
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization… Love,
If you would like to experience a compelling look at the issue moral of capital punishment, check out the film, The Exonerated (click here)
If you’re interested in studying crime and punishment without the academic jargon, check out Elliott Currie’s Crime and Punishment in America (click here). Prepare to have your opinions, biases, and assumptions challenged.
Not too long ago, the NY Times published an article on how exonerations through the use of DNA are forcing state lawmakers across to the country to change laws (click here).