Friday, January 08, 2010


I have always maintained that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to premeditated murders and felony murders (killings committed during burglaries, robberies, sexual assaults). The death penalty will not deter killings committed in the heat of passion, but then nothing can prevent those murders.

No study has ever shown that the death penalty does not deter homicides. At best, the studies touted by the opponents of capital punishment have been inconclusive.

When I was a California cop (before Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Rose Bird as chief supreme court justice) the state was still executing murderers. There was solid empirical evidence that the death penalty does act as a deterrent. Back then, many armed robberies were committed with empty guns. It was common practice for us to ask a crook why he committed a robbery using an empty gun. The response almost always went something like this: I won’t carry a loaded gun because, if I have one, I might kill someone in a moment of panic, and I don’t want to get topped (executed).

Now we have a scientific study which backs up that empirical evidence. Here are some excerpts from a report on that study:

By Michael Graczyk
Associated Press

Houston Chronicle
January 7, 2010

HUNTSVILLE, TEXAS — As many as 60 people may be alive today in Texas because two dozen convicted killers were executed last year in the nation's most active capital punishment state, according to a study of death penalty deterrence by researchers from Sam Houston State University and Duke University.

A review of executions and homicides in Texas by criminologist Raymond Teske at Sam Houston in Huntsville and Duke sociologists Kenneth Land and Hui Zheng concludes a monthly decline of between 0.5 to 2.5 homicides in Texas follows each execution.

“Evidence exists of modest, short-term reductions in the numbers of homicides in Texas in the month of or after executions,” the study published in a recent issue of Criminology, a journal of the American Society of Criminology, said.

The study adds to decades of academic dissection of the death penalty and deterrence. Results over the years vary from capital punishment saving more lives than suggested in this study to no conclusive effect.

This study, however, is the first to focus on monthly data in Texas, where researchers said the number of executions — 447 since capital punishment resumed in 1982 — is statistically significant enough “to make possible relatively stable estimates of the homicide response to executions.” A national deterrent effect can't be determined because “most states ... have not engaged in a sufficient level or frequency of executions per year,” they said.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports capital punishment, said the study “would be sufficient by itself to justify the death penalty.”

The study analyzed data from January 1994 through December 2005, during which 284 lethal injections were carried out in Texas — about one-third of all death sentences carried out in the U.S.

The year 1994 was selected as the starting point because state and federal legislation and court rulings beginning then led to “an orgy of executions in Texas,” the researchers noted.

Of the years studied, four had more than 30 executions, including a record 40 carried out in 2000.

Researchers ran mathematical models that considered homicide figures from the Texas Department of Public Safety to see if month-to-month fluctuations in executions could be associated with subsequent month-to-month fluctuations in homicide counts.

Teske told The Associated Press that while the published study ended with results through 2005, the conclusions are valid for subsequent years.

David McDowall, a professor at the State University of New York at Albany and an expert in statistical analysis of crime and violence patterns, said the study appeared solid and used standard accepted research methods.

Teske acknowledged some experts disliked the results. He speculated criticism came from peer reviewers opposed to capital punishment.

“I have a hard time getting people to understand that this reports a scientific analysis of an issue and is not a political statement,” Teske said.

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