Our Death Penalty: Inciting Murder And Killing Arbitrarily

Rally to abolish the death penaltyWhen Robert Gleason Jr. was put to death in Virginia on January 16 (he chose the electric chair) he became the 140th so-called “volunteer” for execution since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976.  In fact, over 10% of US executions have been “voluntary,” usually meaning that the prisoner has given up his appeals.

But in Gleason’s case it was more than that. He specifically killed to get the death penalty. He strangled his cellmate and vowed to keep on killing unless he was executed.  And this is not the first time someone has committed murder in order to get the state to kill him.  In Ohio in 2009, Christopher Newton was put to death for killing his cellmate. He had refused to cooperate with investigators unless they sought the death penalty.


Fighting Crime Without the Death Penalty


This was the answer given by Former Detective Superintendent Bob Denmark of Lancashire, England when asked what people in the UK thought about the execution of Teresa Lewis. “[People] are no safer now than we were before her death,” added Ronald Hampton, a former D.C. Metropolitan Police Department Community Relations Officer and past Executive Director of the National Black Police Association.

Denmark, who has investigated over 100 homicides in the U.K. as well as genocide in Africa, and Hampton were joined by Police Chief James Abbott of West Orange, New Jersey and Senior Portuguese Public Prosecutor Antonio Cluny at the National Press Club yesterday to share European and American law enforcement perspectives on fighting crime with and without the death penalty.  They discussed whether the death penalty helps or hurts in keeping citizens safe, healing victims, and using crime-fighting resources efficiently.

The short answer to those questions: no. We are no safer because the death penalty is enforced, victims are not healed due to the long and drawn-out process of the death penalty, and our financial resources are not being used effectively. They should be used to train and educate police forces and communities, instead of for “deterrent” purposes.

We are inundated with facts and statistics that tell us the death penalty serves no deterrent function.  What is more powerful, though, is listening to a man who has investigated over 100 homicide cases tell you that he thinks the deterrence argument for the death penalty is “ridiculous.” A child molester, Denmark elaborated, is not deterred from his crimes by the fact that a homicidal terrorist is on death row for his murders. Offenders don’t premeditate getting caught.

But we’ve heard the deterrence argument before, and the obsolete nature of the death penalty goes far beyond its uselessness in preventing crime. Cluny noted that in Portugal, where the death penalty was abolished in 1864, violent crime rates are significantly lower than in other countries, including retentionist countries. Yes, murder still occurs in Portugal, but no one has tried to reintroduce the death penalty. “The first human right,” Cluny said, “is the right to live.”

Alex Trimble contributed to this post.

Police Chiefs to Death Penalty: Drop Dead

The Death Penalty Information Center released a new study today on the high costs, and lack of real benefits, associated with capital punishment in the United States.  The report, called Smart on Crime:  Reconsidering the Death Penalty in a Time of Economic Crisis, also includes the results of a poll of 500 randomly selected U.S. police chiefs who by a more than 2 to 1 margin reject the idea that the death penalty is a deterrent (an assessment confirmed by criminologists),  and, also by a greater than 2 to 1 margin, believe that the death penalty is used as a tough-on-crime symbol by politicians. 

“Greater use of the death penalty” was listed as the best way to reduce violent crime by only 1% (that’s one percent) of the chiefs surveyed, and only 2% (3% in the South) believed that “insufficient use of the death penalty” interferes with effective law enforcement.

And use of the death penalty is declining anyway.  For almost a decade the numbers of death sentences and executions have continued to drop.  As Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told CNN “…the death penalty is turning into an expensive form of life without parole.” SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

U.S. Homicide Rates and the Death Penalty

The FBI’s annual crime report – Crime in the United States, 2008 – which was released Monday reveals that, like death sentences and executions, murder rates in the U.S. declined slightly in 2008.  This has been the trend for a number of years, as has been the fact that homicide rates vary from state to state, with the states of the Deep South generally having the highest murder rates.

As usual, states without capital punishment generally had lower homicide rates than the states that execute.  In fact, all but one of the 14 states with no death penalty in 2008 had murder rates below the national rate of 5.4 per 100,000.  The lone exception, Michigan, had a homicide rate of 5.4, equal to the national rate.

Homicide rates in the U.S. are of course still way too high.  That 1 in every 20,000 Americans was murdered last year is nothing to be proud of, but by now it should be clear to all that, as the consensus of criminologists agree, the death penalty has nothing to do with solving this problem.

A Clear Scientific Consensus that the Death Penalty does NOT Deter

Scientists agree, by an overwhelming majority, that the death penalty has no deterrent effect.  They felt the same way over ten years ago, and nothing has changed since then.  States without the death penalty continue to have significantly lower murder rates than those that retain capital punishment.  And the few recent studies purporting to prove a deterrent effect, though getting heavy play in the media, have failed to impress the larger scientific community, which has exposed them as flawed and inconsistent.

The latest issue of the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology contains a study by a Sociology professor and a graduate student at the University of Colorado-Boulder (Michael Radelet and Traci Lacock), examining the opinions of leading criminology experts on the deterrence effects of the death penalty. 

The results reveal that most experts do not believe that the death penalty or the carrying out of executions serve as deterrents to murder, nor do they believe that existing empirical research supports the deterrence theory.  In fact, the authors report that 88.2% of respondents do not think that the death penalty deters murder—a level of consensus comparable to the agreement among scientists regarding global climate change. At the same time, only 9.2% of surveyed experts indicated that they believed the death penalty results in a significant drop in murder cases (56.6% completely disagreed with that statement, while 32.9% thought the correlation between capital punishment and lower homicide numbers to be “largely inaccurate”; 1.3% were uncertain). 

The study builds upon previous research, published in 1996, in which the opinions of 67 leading experts in the field of criminology were surveyed.  The most recent study sent the same questions to a new group of experts (a total of 73), among whom were fellows from the American Society of Criminology, as well as award-winning criminology scholars.

A majority of respondents also expressed the opinion that death penalty states don’t have lower homicide rates than states where capital punishment has been abolished.  The authors point to empirical evidence that backs this up — in 2007 murder rates in states that still had the death penalty exceeded those in states that have abolished it by no less than 42%.  More than eighteen percent of surveyed experts went even further and actually expressed the belief that the death penalty leads to a higher rate of murders, something the authors call the ‘brutalization hypothesis.’ 

In addition, a majority of respondents involved in both the 2008 and the 1996 studies believe that “(d)ebates about the death penalty distract Congress and state legislatures from focusing on real solutions to crime problems.”  Overall, the authors conclude that there is no significant difference between the opinions of experts from the 1996 and the 2008 time periods and that “a vast majority of the world’s top criminologists believe that the empirical research has revealed the deterrence hypothesis for a myth.”     

Radelet and Lacock also discuss and point to significant inconsistencies in a number of studies conducted by economists, who have found the death penalty to have a deterrent effect.   These inconsistencies lead them to conclude that “(r)ecent econometric studies, which posit that the death penalty has a marginal deterrent effect beyond that of long-term imprisonment, are so limited or flawed that they have failed to undermine consensus.”