Monday, March 06, 2006

Dumb Man Walking

Whatever your position on the death penalty, there’s one thing we can all agree on: Mark Hyman’s editorial about it is simply wrong.

Hyman notes that while most people who oppose capital punishment do so on moral grounds, there are some who “defy logic” by saying that life in prison is a worse punishment than death. He claims we “never hear” of convicts asking for death rather than life in prison. From this, Hyman jumps to the unwarranted conclusion that “capital punishment deters some from committing a heinous crime.”

Hyman is wrong on both counts. Certainly, more individuals appeal their death sentence with the hope of getting life in prison instead than the other way around, but it’s not unheard of. The most obvious example is Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who refused to appeal his sentence because he wanted to die. In fact, since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976 were executed when they more than 12% of inmates executed
voluntarily stopped the appeals process.

A little over a month ago in France, several inmates
formally requested to have the death penalty reinstated for them because “We can’t live anymore without any realistic chance of freedom.”

But more importantly, there isn’t any evidence that the death penalty deters anyone. The best recent look at this comes in the bestseller Freakonomics, in which an economist takes a straightforward look at a number of social issues from a number-crunching perspective. He finds that the use of
the death penalty is so rare and arbitrary that it has no measurable effect on criminal behavior.

This jibes with common sense, that suggests anyone who is numb enough to issues of life and death to commit murder is probably someone who doesn’t place much value on life in general. The idea that someone who commits the sort of crime that results in the death penalty is someone given to a careful weighing of pros and cons of his or her actions is a fiction. And as Freakonomics points out, even if they were models of rationality, the death penalty would not provide a deterrent.

There might be arguments to be made in support of the death penalty that are valid (although I can’t think of any off the top of my head), but the idea that it actually deters murder is not one of them.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 3.68


At 5:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's "jibe," not "jive."

At 10:06 PM, Blogger Ted Remington said...

Right you are! Thanks for the catch.


At 2:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I am not proponent of the death penalty, I think it is dangerous to assert so categorically that the death penalty can never be argued to deter murder. I have a friend, from Canada, whose father was a police officer. At the time when she was growing up, Canada apparantly still had the death penalty. I don't know what the laws were, but apparantly not all murders were capital offenses, but killing an officer was. One day her father cornered a man who had killed someone in the midst of a bungled robbery attempt. The cornered man raised his gun, and the officer told him that if he shot, he would be executed. The man lowered his gun and let himself be arrested.

Now who can say whether the robber would have shot if the officer had not said what he did? But it is hard for me to tell my friend that it is ludicrous for her to think that the death penalty can deter murder in some cases. Just as Ted can bring out the exceptional instances when prisoners have said that they would choose execution over life in prison, I don't think it completely unlikely that there are some exceptional instances when the death penalty does keep someone from "pulling the trigger." I remember another incident where a kidnapper crossed state lines to kill his victim because he knew the state he was going to didn't have the death penalty. Evidence suggests, however, that these are exceptions.

I think there are a lot of good reasons why our society should reject execution as an acceptable form of punishment. The fact that it rarely deters crime is one of them. But for those who want to argue that if it prevents one murder it is worth it, I suppose the argument is there.

Of course none of this changes the fact that Mark Hyman's argument is itself utterly lacking in coherence, logic, and factual input -- not to mention morals.



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