Do (Time) or Die

(Ed. note: We occasionally accept guest op-eds at 538 Refugees. This week we present an article from regular commenter mclever. — Mr. Universe)

by Mac (mclever)

John Wayne Gacy and Rosalynn Carter in 1978 (Image via Wikipedia)

I grew up in northern Illinois under the shadow of John Wayne Gacy. He was the real-life boogeyman that parents used to scare their little ones into avoiding strangers, gay people, and clowns. For those unfamiliar with Gacy, between 1972 and 1978 he killed at least 33 young men and boys between the ages of 14 and 21. After raping and asphyxiating his victims, he buried them in the crawlspace of his house. (A handful went in the Des Plaines River or his garage when the crawlspace got too full.) To all outside appearances, he was the model neighbor: a clown who entertained at children’s parties, a generous donor to charities, and successful small businessman. Naturally, his ordinary guy-next-door profile terrified every housewife from Waukegan to Carbondale. His case stayed in the news through his various appeals all the way up until his (almost botched) execution by lethal injection in 1994. After Charles Walker, Gacy was only the second person that Illinois executed since re-instituting the death penalty in 1977.

The case had particular meaning to me, because when I was in High School, I witnessed a debate between Gacy’s prosecuting attorney, Terry Sullivan, and Rob Warden from the Northwestern University School of Law. The topic: The death penalty. It was my first exposure to the idea that there’s more to good citizenship than just following the law, paying taxes, and voting. That debate convinced me that we have a duty to not just obey the law, but to question and determine what our laws should be. After the debate, my opinion on the death penalty remained unformed, but it certainly got me thinking.

Is the death penalty an effective deterrent to murder?

The answer, in short: No.

According to FBI statistics, states without the death penalty have lower murder rates than those that do. The murder rate in the United States in 2008 was 5.4 per 100,000. Every single one of the 14 states that do not have a death penalty (Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin) had lower murder rates than the national average. The combined average rate for these states was just under four per 100,000, with some states having fewer than two murders per 100,000 residents. In contrast, the average murder rate for all states with the death penalty was about six per 100,000. Of those with the death penalty convictions, only Ohio, Indiana, and Virginia were below the national average at around five per 100,000. Louisiana was the worst at almost 12 per 100,000.

Based on these and other statistics, over 90 percent of criminologists are convinced that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent for capital crimes. To reduce murder and other capital crimes, law enforcement officers put higher priority on reducing drug use, better employment opportunities, and putting more cops on the street.

Murderers generally don’t act rationally. They aren’t concerned about some hypothetical risk of execution, especially when under the influence of drugs, acting in a fit of rage or panic, or suffering from some other mental deficiency. Furthermore, the psychological profiles of serial killers suggest they are usually too convinced of their own superiority to consider that they’d ever get caught. The death penalty simply doesn’t deter these people.

Is the death penalty fairly implemented?

Twenty years have passed since this Court declared that the death penalty must be imposed fairly, and with reasonable consistency, or not at all, and, despite the effort of the states and courts to devise legal formulas and procedural rules to meet this daunting challenge, the death penalty remains fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice, and mistake.

—U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, February 22, 1994

According to Amnesty International, only two percent of those eligible for the death penalty actually receive a death sentence in the United States. One of the main reasons is that the prosecuting attorney makes the decision whether to seek the death penalty, so this decision is necessarily fraught with politics, personalities, and chance. Compared to others convicted of similar crimes, people who receive the death penalty are:

  • More likely to be poor.
  • More likely to be a minority.
  • More likely to have been represented by a public defender who was inexperienced with capital crimes.
  • More likely to have committed a crime against white victims.
  • More likely to be male.
  • Likely to have gotten a different sentence than their co-defendant guilty of the same crime.
  • Most likely to be from Texas or Virginia. (Between 1976 and 2009, Texas and Virginia together executed over 550 persons, while the rest of the nation combined only executed 321.)

Our federal law mandates that the death penalty must be implemented fairly or not at all, but statistics show that states continue to fall short of this objective.

Is the death penalty practical?

Frankly, it simply costs less to incarcerate someone for life than it does to execute them.

In Maryland, a recent study found that an average death penalty case cost roughly three times as much as comparable cases in which prosecutors did not seek the death penalty. If no death penalty is sought, a murder case runs about $1.1 million, including $870,000 in prison costs and $250,000 in trial and appeals costs. In contrast, a death penalty case costs about $3 million, with $1.3 million in prison costs and $1.7 million in trial and appeals to the point of execution. If the death penalty isn’t awarded, it still costs an extra $700,000 more in trial costs than if they hadn’t sought the death penalty in the first place.

Why does it cost so much? In the effort to improve fairness and peace of mind, many states have instituted layers of policies ostensibly designed to protect the rights of those accused of capital offenses. In some states, any interrogations must be videotaped by the police, so there can be no accusations that the confession was forced, for example. Others have strict rules regarding the use of DNA evidence or the handling of evidence in a capital case. Because of these and other regulations, the prosecution costs in a capital case are often higher than those for the defense attorneys. The prosecution will have to invest much more time in building a case not only to convict but to convince the jury (or judge) that death is warranted.

Furthermore, any capital case will necessarily have lengthy appeals. Some would argue that these appeals should be reduced or eliminated, but that would increase the risk that an innocent would be executed. Illinois has one of the lowest rates of death penalty convictions, yet between 1977 and 2003, almost twice as many convicted death row inmates were exonerated (20) as were executed (12). It becomes 21 and 11 if one counts the Girvies Davis case, because he was executed despite exonerating evidence uncovered by students at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

If the death penalty is only for heinous crimes, then is death row guaranteed to contain only the guilty?

Between 1973 and 2003, over 130 death row inmates in the United States were exonerated before their impending execution. Some would argue that this means the appeals system is working, but others have clearly seen this as a sign that the system was convicting too many innocents to die. In light of the high exoneration rate, in 2003, Governor George Ryan commuted the death sentences of all 167 Illinois death row inmates to life in prison.

How does an innocent person get convicted? Likely factors include:

  • Community or political pressure to get a conviction.
  • Poor legal representation, often a public defender or low-cost defender with no experience in capital cases.
  • Police or prosecutorial misconduct.
  • Mistaken eyewitness testimony.
  • Perjured witnesses, especially “jailhouse snitch” testimony.
  • Racial prejudice.
  • Suppression and/or misinterpretation of mitigating evidence.
  • Sometimes mistakes just happen.

The state can’t make restitution for a wrongful conviction if the defendant is dead.

Does the death penalty deliver justice?

Even after accepting that the costs and risks associated with the death penalty make it impractical to administer and impossible to implement fairly, one may still believe that the death penalty serves a valuable function for justice. One may argue that it brings closure for the victims or that some particularly heinous crimes require retribution. This touches on one’s personal morals and the value one places on each life, which means these aren’t easy questions with pat, statistical answers.

For some, no death is ever justified. Many Catholics and other religious people take the admonishment, “Thou shalt not kill,” very seriously. To them, state sanctioned executions are black marks on their own morality, because the state acts on their behalf. Every execution is a murder for which every citizen bears culpability. If all killing is wrong, then the death penalty is, by definition, equally wrong.

To those who suggest that an execution gives closure, the argument can be made that closure for the victims and survivors happens at conviction, not at death. Unless someone is bent on retribution, closure should come from knowing that the perpetrator was caught and found guilty and will never harm anyone else again. That can be accomplished just as thoroughly with life in prison.

Some will argue that a civilized justice system should be more about protecting society than exacting revenge or retribution. Killing a murderer won’t bring anyone else back, and the “eye for an eye” philosophy of justice went out of style with Hammurabi. Even your mama told you that two wrongs don’t make a right.

Others will argue that no civilized government should be in the business of executing its citizens. This creates a systemic devaluation of life that permeates throughout society. Those who make this argument will often point out that countries with the highest violence rates among citizens are also those with the death penalty, and the least violent countries tend to be those who’ve had no death penalty for longer than most.

So the question to you becomes, why do you support the death penalty? Or do you think it is past time to abolish it in the United States?

“Mac” is a software consultant living in a midwestern state full of cornfields. With degrees in math, music, and education Mac claims to be an expert in nothing but interested in everything, especially sci-fi, sports, theology, music, politics, and competitive bridge. Probably has an opinion on any topic you pick. If not, Mac’ll think one up for you!

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52 Responses to Do (Time) or Die

  1. Pete G says:

    I agree on all points and offer this additional one .. which could be used as before the Supreme Court (once we have fair-minded, progressive one that is more in touch with of American’s values):

    “Cruel and unusual” punishments are prohibited by our Constitution. Many sentenced to a death penalty have subsequently been exonerated. It is cruel to send a man WHO KNOWS HE IS INNOCENT back to his prison cell and spend even one night with his life forfeit because of a crime he had nothing to do with and then have him live years with a death penalty hanging over his head, hoping his appeals will work out. This is a punishment that is way out of proportion to his (non-) crime.

    Put yourself in his shoes before you decide whether the death penalty has been – time and time again – “cruel and unusual.”

  2. Monotreme says:

    Our system of jurisprudence is broken. This is just one symptom.

    Perhaps 17th century notions of human criminal behavior worked well at that time, perhaps not. I didn’t live at that time so I can’t be sure. I strongly suspect that banishment was a convenient punishment and one that allowed for a pretty high degree of error.

    Now we are left with a system where the supposed “deterrent” is no deterrent at all, where it’s well-known that eyewitness testimony is wrong more often than it’s right (yes, even if I’m the witness), and where implementation of a supposedly humane and usual death penalty slams up against medical ethics.

    As maclever says, we need to rethink our approach from the ground up.

  3. Mainer says:

    Interesting Mac. Not sure where I come down on this. In the back of my head I think there is still a place for capitol punishment but I don’t like the error rate we have seen either.

  4. Number Seven says:

    All I can say for sure is who the heck let Gacy get that close to the First Lady? At first, I thought the photo was faked but then I did a little internet searching and found the story behind it. How bizarre that such a thing could happen.

    Great article. Maybe it is all about revenge and not justice, per say. I’ll have to think about this awhile.

  5. mclever says:

    Pete G raises an interesting twist on the “cruel and unusual” question by considering the view of someone who is wrongfully convicted. I hadn’t considered that perspective before. If the innocent person’s greatest concern is imprisonment until their innocence is established, then I can certainly see how that’s far less cruel than impending execution.

    The definition of “cruel and unusual punishment” touches upon the moral questions that I raised at the end of my article. At the time our Constitution was written, hangings weren’t considered cruel or unusual. Today, we worry about whether the lethal injection of drugs causes pain or not. (In some states, the drugs used for criminal executions are banned from use for euthanasia in veterinary clinics because they cause too much pain to the animals.) “Cruel and Unusual” is one of those concepts that changes as our civilization and morality advance.

  6. mclever says:

    Where are all the angry posts calling me a naive idiot? That’s what I’d expect to see if the article were posted anywhere else.

    Of course, that’s what I like about this place. Instead of kneejerk rants, we get folk who disagree saying, “I’ll have to think about this,” before they just spout off.


  7. drfunguy says:

    While I generally oppose the death penalty, for a couple of reasons, there are times that I think: some people don’t deserve to live after committing some particularly heinious crime.
    My opposition stems mostly from this fact: we execute innocent people.
    This is unavoidable in a world with imperfect justice.
    If we execute innocent people, those supporting the death penalty are in effect saying: “It is ok to kill a few innocents in order to kill the guilty”. They may wriggle and squirm a bit over how much better we’re getting at avoiding this ‘collateral damage’ and so forth, but this is merely arguing over how _many_ innocents you are willing to kill to impose the death penalty on those who ‘deserve’ it.
    Is it ok to kill one innocent in order to put 100 guilty to death? 10,000?
    Given the lack of deterrence and the expense of insuring fair trials and adequate appeals, can’t we find better ways to deter crime and promote justice?

  8. Mule Rider says:

    “Where are all the angry posts calling me a naive idiot?”

    I won’t do that but I will say that reminding us all of what went down with John Wayne Gacy – whose guilt was slam-dunk (not in question) and his crimes incredibly odious and horrific and scarring hundreds of people for life (even for those he didn’t take) – and trotting out his resume in defense of being against the death penalty isn’t going to tug many heartstrings who staunchly defend its use. Some people who wreak such devastating havoc/mayhem on society simply deserve to be punished in the most extreme manner possible with the taking of their life, and I think Gacy was one of those people. I don’t think that’s something I’ll ever back down from either.

    I will say I’m much more cautious and measured in my approach of how the death penalty should be used as I’ve matured from the days of wishing they would indiscriminantly take society’s worst and “line ’em up and shoot ’em!” Namely because I do think it is a travesty for our society and our justice system if we mete out the ultimate penalty on an innocent person. HOWEVER, there are simply some cases that are absolutely 100% no-doubt-about-it, the police caught the guy with the severed heads displayed on his mantle or he’s still raping the corpses….and in such cases those nefarious creatures should be exterminated and it should be done as quickly as possible. I have to think that there’s a way to weed out the wrongful convictions or, at the very least in those instances where there’s even an iota of doubt over the person’s guilt, they should simply be imprisoned until there is something to overturn the conviction…..but still leave execution as an option for those “slam dunk” cases.

    Anyway, now that I’ve given more of my “gut feeling” on the matter, I do have one quibble with a technical aspect of this article. You compared states with and without the death penalty and concluded that it didn’t appear that the death penalty was an adequate “deterrent” because states that employ the death penalty didn’t have lower murder rates (and they even appeared higher) than states without the death penalty as a punishment option. I don’t think that’s a valid comparison. Other factors are at play in determining the murder rate in a state or region. The murder rate may be lower in Hawai’i than in Alabama even though ‘Bama executes and Hawai’i doesn’t but that has less to do with deterrents or a lack thereof than with other socioeconomic factors. If you want a valid comparison, you would need to compare a state with the death penalty to a hypothetical situation where it doesn’t use the death penalty (or vice versa). For all we know, Hawai’i might still have a lower rate if it allowed executions and Alabama’s might still be higher if it didn’t. But we just don’t know without much stricter analysis.

    Anyway, I think it’s tough to argue that the possibility of being executed isn’t much of a deterrent given the nature of appeals and whatnot that stretch out many death row inmate’s sentences to 10-20 years or more awaiting execution. Why would possibly getting the death penalty deter you from murdering someone when you know it’s possible you will live longer on death row than your life expectancy might be out on the streets as societal scum?

    Besides, I don’t get too caught up on the idea of the death penalty being a “deterrent.” Yes, a nice side effect of executing society’s most heinous criminals would be if it encouraged some not to do the things that would get them executed (thereby having fewer people’s lives ruined overall). But the primary function, for me, of the death penalty is to serve justice, regardless of whether or not it discourages anyone else from doing something similar in the future. We value justice in this country, and sometimes the only justice after some crimes is for the offender to pay with his/her life.

    That’s my nickel’s worth.

  9. Mainer says:

    How many people do we execute in this country each year? And is Texas still the land of the jailed and the home of the fried champion?

  10. Mule Rider says:

    Oh, and add me to the list that was creeped out seeing Gacy side-by-side with Mrs. Carter. Holy cow, I would’ve never imagined that possible.

  11. GROG says:

    (thinking outloud)

    1) We always seem to be concerned about killing innocent people, which we obviously should be. But should we be any less concerned with imprisoning innocent people for their entire lives? What’s a more cruel punishment; death or life in prison?

    2) Is there truly a deterent for murder? If life in prison or death isn’t a deterent, I don’t think there is one. When someone is in the frame of mind to kill another person, perhaps they’re not thinking cleary enough or sane enough to consider the consequences.

  12. Bartbuster says:

    1) We always seem to be concerned about killing innocent people, which we obviously should be. But should we be any less concerned with imprisoning innocent people for their entire lives? What’s a more cruel punishment; death or life in prison?

    The difference seems pretty obvious. A person sent to prison for life can always be set free if it is determined that they were innocent.

  13. Mainer says:

    Wow went and answered my own question. I still can’t believe Virginia is number 2 with 107 since the law was changed but the numbers for Texas are disturbing.

    Keep thinking out loud Grog, interesting considerations.

    Mule, yes damned creepy or odd or………..makes one wonder how many other whack jobs get close to our leaders…………or us or our families????? Cold shiver…..damn.

  14. GROG says:

    To Mule’s point regarding comparing states with and without the death penalty.

    It’s like comparing cities with different gun control laws. Chicago has some of most restricive gun control laws, but they also have one of the highest violent crime rates in the nation and more Chicago police officers were killed in 2010 by gunfire than any other city.

    Are we to conclude that stronger gun control laws lead to more violent crimes?

  15. Bartbuster says:

    Are we to conclude that stronger gun control laws lead to more violent crimes?

    Yes, if one ignores all the other far more obvious factors, one could definitely conclude that.

  16. GROG says:

    That was Mule’s point Bartbuster.

  17. Bartbuster says:

    That was Mule’s point Bartbuster.

    The comparison should definitely be done between states with similar social and economic standards.

  18. Pete G says:

    I don’t know mule-rider. The corpse-rapist is despicable – but he seems less guilty to me (in cosmic sense) than someone who plots a murder to inherit a fortune.

    If someone has (say) a railroad spike protruding from their skull (or an electronic device implanted in their brain) that compels them rape and murder, are they responsible to the extent that we as a society should kill them? I think that people committing heinous crimes must have some alteration of brain chemistry/physiology that (though less visible) makes them no more worthy of being killed for their crime. How else could they override normal human revulsion they should have for what they do? I think they likely have some combination of genetics and early life experience (studies say often being the victim themselves of childhood rape by a trusted adult) that flipped some switch. In a sense they became subhuman.

    So you may say if they are subhuman why worry about killing them. I don’t think any human (and so fallible) judge/ jury can see into a man’s brain physiology (or soul) to figure out if they are human or subhuman, whether they acted sufficient free-will to justify putting them to death, whether there will ever be a cure for their damaged minds.

    Yes, certainly protect society and put them away for life without parole (or until such time as we understand enough to fix their brains with 100% reliability). If we continue to kill them, history will view us harshly – when the mind is better understood. It is not the job of rational humans to judge the “quick and the dead.”

  19. mclever says:


    I agree that it’s not a perfect correlation between murder rates and the death penalty, because there are obviously other factors involved, like drug use, over-crowding, and unemployment.

    The point is that if capital punishment were an effective deterrent for murder, then places with a death penalty should see lower murder rates than comparable places without one. That isn’t how it bears out in reality. Alongside low-population states like Hawaii and Alaska are several high population states that are normally associated with big, scary cities and lots of murders. Michigan (Detroit), Massachusetts (Boston), New York and New Jersey are among those 14 states with murder rates below the national average and no death penalty. That’s why I found that statistic more compelling than not.

  20. Mainer says:

    Not sure if this helps. The second URL is a little out of date but I have seen more recent ones that would indicate that my state is actually in the top 5 or 10 in gun ownership (I’m betting top 5) but look where we fall on gun murders. The one thing I learned is that Cajun food needs to be investigated, or shrimp or some thing.

    I have come to the belief from working in them that the more urban an area is the more likely it would be that I would end up shooting some one if I actually had to live there. I live in the freaking middle of nowhere because I can. Every house on my street is armed some very armed but most don’t think about going out and shooting some one. We get murders of course and there are guns used but so are clubs, knives, cars, and poison. Oh and no death penalty.

  21. Mr. Universe says:

    A friend of mine has actually received the Shining Star award from the Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

    Still, I remain uncertain about the issue. America has a long standing commitment to flesh out and execute members of al Queda; among them an American citizen. And there’s all those guys in Gitmo. How do we deal with that?

    I think there’s a distinction missing between punishing the guilty for crimes committed and those who would perpetuate future crimes. Not to go all ‘Minority Report’ here.

    Which is worse? Lifetime incarceration, or swift justice? If we caught bin Laden, what should his punishment be?

    One thing I do agree upon; and it is the tenet of American justice, It is better to let ten guilty men go free than to wrongly convict one innocent one.

  22. GROG,

    Is there truly a deterent for murder?

    Answering that question requires that we examine the reasons people commit murder. For those who commit murder because they think they’re too clever to get caught (most of the worst serial killers appear to fall into this category), there is no social deterrent. For those whose murders are crimes of passion, as you noted, they’re not likely to be thinking clearly, and thus aren’t likely to be deterred.

    The most relevant question is about the degree to which death is a greater deterrence than life imprisonment. Personally, I can’t imagine that it’s an appreciable difference. Now, perhaps if we returned to the days of long, drawn out torture designed to result in death (drawing and quartering, anyone?), we’d see something significant enough to register. But I, for one, don’t have the stomach to go there.

  23. Pete G says:

    Yes, as pointed out correlation is not causation. The states that have the death penalty may have the death penalty because they have higher murder rates and think the death penalty will help.

    As in medical reseach, a better case for causation can be made with a prospective study. What happens to murder rates in a state after the death penalty has been abolished or reinstituted. I’m sure the study has been done. But even then you have to be careful. What other changes (recession, drug use, etc.) took place around the same time as the change in death penalty policy? The best way to demonstrate causation, a randomized controlled trail, is probably not feasible for this question.

    I’d guess in the final analysis, the death penalty is not a deterrent. And for all the other compelling reasons outlined, I am dead-set against the state killing criminals.

  24. mclever says:

    Also, I started with the story of Gacy, because I don’t want to pretend that everyone on Death Row is a relative innocent like Girvies Davis was. If our nation does eliminate the death penalty, then we have to make sure our system is prepared to deal with people like Gacy, with serial/compulsive killers who won’t stop killing. I won’t pretend that this is an easy subject with nice, pat answers. There are some people who “deserve” death, but that doesn’t mean that we as a society should be doing the killing.

  25. NotImpressed says:

    I don’t have much time to comment today, haven’t read through the existing comments, so please excuse me if I repeat something.

    The last study I saw said that it is more expensive to execute someone than to just have them in prison for life. Of course, that’s partly because of all the automatic appeals. But I think those appeals are a Good Thing, and it would be a mistake to shorten the process. Mainly because:

    … another study I saw showed that the number of people who are executed in error is MORE than the number of people who die as a result of recidivism for murderers who are pardoned or who serve less than life in prison.

    When we execute someone for murder, if that person proves later to be not guilty, we’ve committed two crimes. We’ve murdered an innocent person. And we’ve let the actual murderer go free. As long as the accused person is alive, he or she has a chance to prove innocence. And if innocence is proven, the case can be re-opened (there is no statute of limitations on murder) and the guilty person still might be found. Once there is an execution, the chance for actual justice is pretty much gone.

    The best piece of dark humor I ever heard, a line from a novel (can’t recall which one): Attempted suicide’s illegal. The penalty’s death.

    I think it was Robert Anton Wilson who said that a “legitimate government” is defined as “that body of thugs who can enforce a monopoly on violence within certain geographical borders.” Capital vengeance is one example of the violence a government may claim to have a monopoly on. I never could understand why it’s okay for us to do things as a nation that we would would never allow individuals to get away with.

    “I dare say he deserves death. May that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be so hasty to deal out death in judgment.”

  26. Pete G says:

    Sorry. Make that “randomized control TRIAL” I’m not sure what a “randomized control TRAIL” is. In a RCT people are randomly assigned to one or the other condition (usually drug or placebo) and then followed over time for a result. For this issue (and I’m not saying this is feasible), people at risk, say violent criminals finishing their sentences, are randomly assigned to being released into states with and without the death penalty (unfortunately you can’t keep them from crossing state lines without monitoring them and so altering their natural behavior) and then you followup over time to see if there is a difference in rates of capital crime rates (plus you’d have to also correct your results for those who crossed into states with a different death penalty policy – and what their capital crime rates were).

  27. Brian says:

    If you scroll down to the bottom of one of the links (, they compare neighboring states, one with the death penalty and one without.

    Looking at that, its clear the states without it have a lower homicide rate than those without it. Unfortunately, 8 states is a pretty small sample size. Probably because non death penalty states are limited geographically. None in the south at all.

    Personally, I would put them in solitary confinement for the rest of their lives. Extremely limited visitation, no contact with other prisoners, etc. That sounds worse than death to me.

  28. From a statistical analysis perspective, I compared the per-capita execution rate to the per-capita murder rate in the 50 states plus DC.

    The R-square is tiny (0.025), and the bell curve on the correlation is very fat, resulting in a 95% confidence level of a correlation ranging from -10.2 to +35.6.

    In other words, the effect that the number of executions has on the number of murders is hard to see.

    Now, in comparing the mere presence or absence of a death penalty to the per capita murder rate, things look more promising. The R-square is still small (0.17), but the bell curve narrows and stays firmly in the positive, resulting in a significance F of 0.025. In other words, there is a 97.5% probability of a correlation, accounting for approximately 17% of the effect on the murder rate.

    The correlation is 2.3 (plus or minus 1.5), meaning that the presence of the death penalty correlates to 2.3 (olus or minus 1.5) more murders per 100,000 people, per year. Given that the national average murder rate is approximately 5 per 100,000 people per year, that’s a substantial correlation.

  29. Max aka Birdpilot says:

    The writers of the Constitution, by the protections of the 4th, 5th, 6th and 8th Amendments make it clear that they wanted the power of the State limited when it came time to imprison and possibly execute citizens. It is obvious by those protections that they knew some who committed the crime would go free rather than for the innocent to be punished.

    It should NOT be the job of police and prosecutors to have a high conviction rate alone. The prosecutors office should be making sure that the person they put on trial IS the criminal, not just can they make a good case.

    As further safeguards, any law enforcement official who is responsible for sending an innocent person to jail, should have to serve the same time that person did. Same thing goes for a prosecutor, but THEY get the honor of serving the FULL original sentence. Again, it should be their responsibility of sending the RIGHT person to jail, not just get convictions. Meanwhile, the CRIMINAL has been on the street the whole time! And in capital cases, same rule applies.

    Under these circumstances, capital punishment is NO issue to me.

  30. shortchain says:

    I think the death penalty is a relict of a religious age, when the state, being the implementation of a deity’s will upon Earth, could be seen as having a divine right over all the people. “May God have mercy on your soul”, for example. This presupposes that your guilt is certain, beyond mortal question. Since “so help me God” is also a feature of witnesses, they could be presumed to be under the watchful eye of an omniscient deity who could — if He wanted — overturn the ruling of the court.

    Better than the SC, especially with death-penalty loving guys like Scalia, Thomas, or Alito.

  31. JC2 says:

    @Max aka Birdpilot

    “As further safeguards, any law enforcement official who is responsible for sending an innocent person to jail, should have to serve the same time that person did. Same thing goes for a prosecutor, but THEY get the honor of serving the FULL original sentence.”

    Max, do you think you can find it in your heart to insert the word ‘willfully’ once or twice in that paragraph? Otherwise, who are your going to get to perform these functions? I know lots of good LEOS who would feel compelled to walk away from their jobs under your conditions. Would any mere mortal be able to serve? Can’t speak for prosecutors since they mostly are lawyers.

    That said, I am personally opposed to capital punishment under any but the most rare conditions. Those conditions, being rare, would probably not withstand the unusual part or ‘cruel and unusual punishment’

  32. JC2 says:

    States wanting to impose capital punishment should be limited to instances where guilt is incontestable AND there is a perfect chain of custody from the act of the crime to the execution.

    I am not sure if John Wayne Gacy would qualify. Wayne Lo most likely would have and Jared Lee Loughner certainly does. Timothy McVeigh gets a pass.

    In these cases, legal proceedings should be brief and limited to assessing whether there are mitigating circumstances such as child abuse or mental illness sufficient to indicate long term imprisonment combined with treatment might better server society.

  33. JC2 says:

    @Michael Weiss
    ‘From a statistical analysis perspective, I compared the per-capita execution rate to the per-capita murder rate in the 50 states plus DC.’

    Excellent analysis! This result feels intuitive to me as the mere existence of the death penalty denigrates and devalues life.

    That is not to mention the nut cases who somehow think they will go out in a “blaze of infamous glory” if executed by the state.

  34. JC2,

    What my analysis does not show is which comes first. Some have suggested that the higher murder rate leads a state to have a death penalty. That conclusion is equally plausible based solely on the regression.

  35. Armchair Warlord says:

    Considering the legal costs and delays involved with the death penalty I’ve soured on the idea over the years. In order for a death penalty to have a deterrent effect to other criminals it would have to be handed down quickly, dramatic, public and possibly messy and painful – modern executions are none of these, for extremely good reasons.

    This leaves us with an expensive and time-consuming appendix to the legal system – given that American prisons are pretty bad places I’d say life in prison is punishment enough. If you’re looking to get your macho vibe on, “given a lethal injection after five years of appeals” just doesn’t get your blood pumping like, “hung at dawn” does, and let’s face it – this is basically a macho issue for a lot of states. *cough*Texas*cough*

  36. Armchair Warlord says:

    To expand on my earlier point – a good chunk of the reason government spends so much money in this country is because a ridiculously large percentage of the population is incarcerated at any given time. Comparing us to other industrialized countries we have a whole lot of people in jail and yet crime doesn’t seem to have solved itself yet.

    I think wholesale reform of the American penal system is order – the death penalty is chump change next to the costs to keep so many people behind bars.

  37. mclever says:

    Armchair Warlord,

    Comparing us to other industrialized countries we have a whole lot of people in jail and yet crime doesn’t seem to have solved itself yet.

    Good point.

    Perhaps that’s because we’re over-focused on punishment and not on reform and rehabilitation? As you say, it’s a “macho” thing.

    From what I remember reading, a large portion of the prison population are repeat offenders, and those who do time are likely to commit progressively worse crimes when they get out because of the corruption in the prison culture. Sounds like a pretty big mess all around, and from that perspective, the existence of the death penalty is only a small piece of the overall problem with our justice system.

  38. Pete G says:

    Re: The cost and ineffectiveness of our prison system. Don’t we have a technological fix for this: Tamper-proof Ankle bracelets + GPS + a government computer. For non-violent offenders in particular, clamp an ankle bracelet to them for the term of their “imprisonment.”

    This is only an example: You can be at home unless 1) at your scheduled work 8:30-5:00 M-F, points in between home and work at 8-8:30am and 5:00-5:30pm, 2) grocery store and points in between there and home twice a week; Must be at drug rehab center 7-8pm Monday and Community Service Center 6-8pm Thurs. Why were you at the gas station at the moment it was being held up? Why were you in within 10 ft of another bracelet from 8:04 to 8:22 last Tuesday? Oh, and if you violated one major or 3 minor requiremnts of the terms above, we know at any given time where to pick you up to take you back to jail.

    Also I’d like to see more fines and restitution for white collar theft, fraud, etc.

    Just thinking out loud.

  39. mclever says:

    Interesting thoughts, Pete G.

    I have no idea what the costs of ankle-bracelet monitoring would be, but it certainly could be a viable alternative, especially for non-violent crimes (such as drug use).

  40. mclever says:

    It looks like my article regarding the Death Penalty was just a tad early…

    Governor Pat Quinn plans to abolish the Death Penalty in Illinois. Would this be considered overreach for the Democrat? Does this seem to fit with what Illinoisans want? Or is Gov. Quinn insulating himself from accusations of overreach by his approach where he’s inviting discussion and apparently weighing all sides carefully?

  41. Monotreme says:

    I think this is our country’s future.

  42. After spending a long time with great ambivalence, I hope it is our nation’s future.

  43. mclever says:

    Likewise, Michael.

  44. drfunguy says:

    I don’t see why we punish people for (some) drug use in the first place.
    Abuse of drugs is a health care issue.
    Prohibition of _any_ drug leads to a black market and all the attendant corruption and violent crime.
    I have yet to see a rational argument why some drugs should be illegal and other, equally dangerous and addictive ones, legal…
    I am libertarian on this issue. And we could close a lot of prisons if we legalized drugs.

  45. mclever says:

    An interesting perspective, drfunguy.

    I agree that drug abuse is a medical problem, and not a criminal one.

    However, certain drugs should (quite reasonably) only be available while under the supervision of a doctor, and thus requiring a prescription. The unlicensed distribution of drugs is a criminal offense, so the traffickers are the ones who should be crowding the prisons, not the users.

    I suppose this ties to the Death Penalty, because in states that have the death penalty, prosecutors are more likely to pursue the death penalty if the perpetrators were minorities involved in a drug-related crime.

  46. drfunguy,
    Another topic of ambivalence for me. There’s a ton to argue about on both sides.

  47. mclever says:

    I tend to take a practical approach with regard to drugs, rather than being dogmatically ideological in either direction. Generally, I think people should be allowed to do what they want to their own bodies as long as it doesn’t involve significant harm to someone else. I’ve got no problem with others engaging in recreational marijuana use, for example. In fact, legalizing it and taxing it could be very effective. Taxing harmful behaviors to recoup the cost to society seems to allow the most freedom while managing the societal impact.

    But some of the drugs out there are very scary and do very scary things to the people who take them, which makes them do very crazy things that usually involve high-risk, dangerous behavior that endangers other citizens. Those I’m not so sanguine about. I think it’s appropriate to require doctor supervision and prescriptions for certain (especially addictive) substances.

    Then there are the scary new drugs like “K2” or “Spice” which are designed to imitate marijuana’s high. K2/Spice is untestable and undetectable, and can apparently be bought as a “non-consumable” item at local gas stations. But, rather than making someone MJ mellow, K2/Spice causes hallucinations, heart palpitations, high blood pressure, and thus is much more physically dangerous to oneself than pot. Some people who take it even become instantly suicidal or engage in high-risk behaviors that endanger others.

    So, do we let these artificially created chemicals pass unregulated? or is the DEA right to ban them?

    The availability of drugs like these contribute to crime rates (which contribute to calls for the death penalty). Regulation of drug abuse is a necessary component of reducing crime, according to most criminologists. This is why, as I suggested in an earlier comment, I think drug users should be treated as patients with a medical problem, and the distributors should be the ones potentially facing criminal charges.

  48. drfunguy says:

    “some of the drugs out there are very scary and do very scary things to the people who take them”
    This is identical to the arguments (by then Attorney General Anslinger) that led to marijuana prohibition. I don’t buy it.
    The same could be said of alcohol which is implicated in much violent crime.
    If people engage in criminal behavior; punish them for the behavior.
    The down side of criminalizing drug distribution is a vast black market which funds organized crime and corrupts our law enforcement. The inherent hypocrisy of drug prohibition (as long as alcohol and tobacco are legal) also lead to disrespect for the rule of law and authority.
    I challenge anyone to give evidence of an upside. It does nothing to reduce the supply of the drugs or discourage their use.
    I have said enough.

  49. mclever says:


    I don’t disagree with you, which is why I find the question of how to pursue a smart drug policy difficult.

  50. Monotreme says:

    It is an interesting question, because it tugs at our concept of jurisprudence.

    That is, would someone be able to use a diminished capacity or “Twinkie Defense”?

    If we remove drug use laws (which I support) we’d also have to make a person responsible for their actions, even if intoxicated. That is, we’d push back the “bad choice” to taking the drug, and recognize that once someone takes a drug, they forfeit the right to use a diminished capacity defense for whatever might happen next.

  51. Where things get really messy is in the biology of teens and young adults. They are hard-wired to seek out short-term pleasure regardless of the long-term cost. Given that drugs line up very well with this, the mere presence of the drugs is a huge danger to society.

    Not that they are that hard for that age group to get in the current environment.

    So is the ultimate conclusion that we can’t beat ’em, so we might as well join ’em?

  52. mclever says:

    @Michael Weiss

    Regarding youth drug use, that is one area where I run into conundrums with my usual preference for freedom of choice. I don’t care if the 35-yr-old software developer on my team gets high on Saturdays as long as the work gets accomplished during the week, but I would care if my (hypothetical) 15-yr-old child were using drugs that may permanently alter the development of their brains and hinder their long-term intellectual capacity. I would also care of teens in my neighborhood/city/state/country were using lots of drugs–not just because of the immediate risks, but because of the long-term detrimental cost to society of lost potential that these kids represent.

    But the problem with absolute prohibition (for minors) is twofold. First, anything that’s forbidden becomes extra enticing, especially to teens, which encourages a more dangerous black-market route to obtainment. And second, minimal, limited usage of things like alcohol or pot rarely has significant long-term impairment. The key being minimal and limited–meaning a joint or a beer a couple of times a year, not twice a week. If proper, restrained usage is modeled, then teens are less likely to engage in hyper-risky overuse. Letting little Suzy taste a beer or glass of wine once in a while under the responsible supervision of her parents will actually probably make her a smarter imbiber later in life, because she won’t feel as much of a need to do the “forbidden binge.”

    I suppose, I should say the problem is three-fold, because if we wanted to really regulate usage based on its likely impact to brain development, then we’d prohibit alcohol and any other mind-altering substances until age 25 or 26. Until then, binge drinking (or heavy pot smoking or other recreational drug use) can dramatically hinder brain development and cause significant permanent damage. If I understand the studies I’ve read, then drug use later in life has much less impairing effects than drug use before age 25. But, I don’t think anyone would agree to raising the legal age that high!

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