Common Sense on Capital Punishment

Posted: Jun 27, 2007 7:23 PM
Common Sense on Capital Punishment

Our country seems to be able to come to the right conclusions over time, even when we’re being told over and over again that we're wrong. When I say the right conclusions, by the way, I mean conclusions supported by honest research and real evidence. I've got a good example -- capital punishment.

For decades, the self-proclaimed smart kids have been telling us that the death penalty just doesn't work. The people with the top jobs in academia and the news business have scoffed at the American people's insistence that executions prevent murder.

On the very surface of the issue, it would seem pretty obvious that an executed murderer can't murder anybody else -- but we’ve been told that we were wrong even about that. You've undoubtedly heard the old saw about executions actually motivating murderers to kill, presumably because what murderers really want is attention. The argument is a stretch, demanding that we believe that killers aren’t deterred by the consequences of being caught and executed. Without evidence, though, it's hard to rebut.

In the last few years, however, serious researchers have applied themselves to finding the evidence. Criminologists and economists have gathered and analyzed a mountain of data, and many of them were surprised by what they found. Now, they’ve published papers in respected academic journals that are establishing an unexpected consensus.

The reliable two-thirds of Americans who have always supported the death penalty probably wouldn't be surprised to find out that study after study has shown that the death penalty deters murders. Some studies show really dramatic effects, with each execution of a murderer deterring as many as 18 or more murders. That’s according to Emory University professors, who found as well that delaying execution also leads to further murders. Most studies have concluded that some number of murders between three and 18 are prevented for every application of capital punishment.

I guess the most surprising thing to me was seeing an article about these findings just a few weeks ago by the Associated Press. The most interesting quote was from a well-known opponent of capital punishment who looked at the evidence and said, "Abolitionists or others, like me, who are skeptical about the death penalty haven't given adequate consideration to the possibility that innocent life is saved by the death penalty."

Certainly, the use of DNA evidence to clear long-held prisoners from murder charges proves that we need to be more careful about handing out death sentences; and science must be used even more and earlier in the criminal process to protect the innocent and convict the guilty. However, these studies are important in properly analyzing the effect of the death penalty.