Evidence of death penalty as crime deterrent is flimsy
Recent studies claim that capital punishment is a deterrent to murder.
PROPONENTS of the death penalty are waving recent studies concluding that lethal injections act as a deterrent to murder. The studies have been shown to be flawed, and polls indicate that Americans are increasingly skeptical about state executions as a way to discourage private homicides.
Hawaii is among a dozen states and the District of Columbia that disallow the morally reprehensible punishment. Eleven of the 38 states where capital punishment is on the books have suspended its use. State Sen. Sam Slom proposed a bill in this year's legislative session to allow death sentences for killing a child, killing when combined with torture or sexual assault and multiple murders, but it was quickly and rightly ignored.
A dozen articles published since 2001 contend that each use of capital punishment could save three to 18 lives. Some of them maintain that murders of passion can be deterred, while others claim that executions can even reduce robberies and some nonviolent crimes.
Jeffrey Fagan, a professor of law and public health at Columbia University, debunked the recent studies as unreliable two years ago in testimony before a New York legislative committee. "The omissions and errors are so egregious that this work falls well within the unfortunate category of junk science," he said.
Fagan said the new deterrent studies "lump all forms of murder together, claiming that all are equally deterrable," produce "erratic and contradictory results," neglect crime trends, use incomplete data, fail to show if murderers were aware of executions in their own states and fail to account for the deterrent effects of sentences of life without parole, applicable in Hawaii for multiple murders.
More than 3,000 inmates in California are serving sentences of life without parole, while 660 are on death row and 13 have been executed since 1976. "The omission of this alternate and competing explanation for the decline in murder rates in California and other states is irresponsible and borders on incompetence," Fagan told the New York legislators.
While a majority of Americans continue to support capital punishment, a recent poll by the Death Penalty Information Center showed that 58 percent favor a moratorium on the death penalty while it undergoes a review.
Much of the recent concern about capital punishment results from DNA exonerations. Since 1973, 124 people have gained their freedom from death row after post-conviction evidence proved their innocence.
Capital punishment puts the United States in sordid company in terms of human rights. While China accounts for the majority of executions, that country and Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan and the United States account for more than 90 percent of executions.