Capital Punishment in the News

In the November 18 edition of the Sunday New York Times, Adam Liptak has an article about a number of recent studies addressing the central justification for capital punishment: whether the death penalty deters murders. The studies conclude that executions save lives. Liptak writes: “For each inmate put to death, the studies say, 3 to 18 murders are prevented…The studies, performed by economists in the past decade, compare the number of executions in different jurisdictions with homicide rates over time — while trying to eliminate the effects of crime rates, conviction rates and other factors — and say that murder rates tend to fall as executions rise.”

Liptak goes on to write that there has been sharp criticism of these studies because they are grounded in theories of economists that do not apply to the violent world of crime and punishment. Some say that the studies are based on faulty premises, insufficient data and flawed methodologies.

Some interesting facts in the article include:
Only about one in 300 homicides results in an execution. In 2003, for instance, there were more than 16,000 homicides but only 153 death sentences and 65 executions.
The cost of a capital litigation case exceeds more than $1 million.
Canada has executed no one since 1962. Murder rates in the US and Canada have moved in close parallel since then, including before, during and after the four-year death penalty moratorium in the United States in the 1970s.

The US Supreme Court has granted certiorari in the case of Baze v. Rees and will decide this term whether death sentences carried out by lethal injection violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. As a result, a number of states that use the lethal injection method have indicated they will stay executions pending the Court’s decision.

Another New York Times article reports that the State of New Jersey is set to become the first state to repeal the death penalty since the United States Supreme Court allowed executions to resume in 1976. According to the article, a 13-member commission in New Jersey that studied the death penalty reviewed some of the studies and found them “conflicting and inconclusive.”

The studies referred to in the articles are:
Uses and Abuses of Empirical Evidence in the Death Penalty Debate, by John J. Donohue and Justin Wolfers (Stanford Law Review, December 2005)
Is Capital Punishment Morally Required? Acts, Omissions and Life-Life Trade-offs, by Cass R. Sunstein and Adrian Vermuele (Stanford Law Review, December 2005)
Does Capital Punishment Have a Deterrent Effect? New Evidence From Post-moratorium Panel Data, by Hashem Dezhbaksh, Paul H. Rubin and Joanna M. Shepherd (American Law and Economics Review 2003)
Deterrence Versus Brutalization: Capital Punsishment’s Differing Impacts Among States, by Joanna Shepherd (Michigan Law Review, November 2005)
Prison Conditions, Capital Punishment and Deterrence, by Lawrence Katz, Steven D. Levitt and Ellen Shustorovich (American Law and Economics Review 2003)
Getting Off Death Row: Commuted Sentences and the Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment, by H. Naci Mocan and R. Kaj Gittings (Journal of Law and Economics, October 2003)
Capital Punishment and Capital Murder: Market Share and the Deterrent Effects of the Death Penalty, by Jeffrey Fagan, Franklin E. Zimring and Amanda Geller (Texas Law Review, June 2006)

On the international front, the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee voted Thursday 99-52 to place a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty. Thirty-three countries abstained from the vote. Opponents of the resolution included Singapore, Egypt, China and the US. The resolution will go to the UN General Assembly later this year. The resolution states that capital punishment “undermines human dignity,” that “there is no conclusive evidence of the death penalty’s deterrent value” and that “any miscarriage or failure of justice in [its] implementation is irreversible and irreparable.” Though non-binding, supporters of the resolution believe international opinion against capital punishment is growing.

Source: Jurist November 16, 2007