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Death Penalty An Ineffective Deterrent

Guest Column by John H. Morrison

In his column demanding the death penalty ["Enforcement of Death Penalty Required," Oct. 22], Michael K. Chung cites the Golden Rule at one point, but his entire position disregards it. He has also apparently forgotten that the Golden Rule and the related admonition to "Turn the other cheek" were proclaimed in opposition to "An eye for an eye," not in conjunction as he claims.

The murder of Yngve K. Raustein '94 was one of only two murders committed in Cambridge in 1992. Whether two murders per 100,000 population is considered low in the abstract or ideal case may be debated, but the rate is low compared with cities of comparable population. It's also very low considering that Cambridge is part of a larger urban area. Granted, the rate of two per 100,000 last year may have been a statistical fluctuation; the 1991 rate was five murders per 100,000. The average over several years is more like three to four per 100,000. That's still quite low.

Chung may argue that the murder rate would be lowered even further if we had the death penalty. Perhaps Chung thinks that cities like Dallas, Houston, and Miami have lower murder rates than Boston and New York City? A trip to Dewey Library to check the FBI's Uniform Crime Report should disabuse him of that illusion.

Boston's murder rate in 1992 was lower than in 1991 -- under fourteen per 100,000. High murder rates in certain areas of Boston, Los Angeles, and New York City appear to coincide with a prevalence of police lawlessness, including murder. Washington DC does not have the death penalty, but its extraordinarily high murder rate may be indirectly linked with the power games played secretly or openly among various factions. Of course, issues such as poverty, despair, and the abandonment of the cities for the suburbs, as well as violence in movies and on TV play a role. We can compare statewide murder rates as well. They are invariably lower than the urban rates, but they show the same trend as the cities: States that routinely apply the death penalty have higher murder rates than those without the death penalty. New York appears to be an exception, but that's because a high fraction of its population lives in New York City. The result holds if we consider upstate New York.

Texas, Florida, and Louisiana are among the leaders nationwide in executions -- and lead the nation in murders per 100,000 people. Mississippi is under investigation for dozens of jail house lynchings the past few years. If you look through the list in the Uniform Crime Report of cities with populations over 10 thousand, you rarely see a city in Mississippi or Texas without at least one murder. The large majority of cities in Massachusetts have no murders.

This suggests that the death penalty promotes murder instead of deterring it. Death penalty opponents often cite a study of New York City indicating that on the average two more murders occurred during the month following an execution there than otherwise. The murder rate in Canada dropped after the death penalty was abolished there.

It's possible instead, that the prevalence of the death penalty merely reflects the population's tendency for murder. In other words, those people may support the death penalty because they have fewer problems than the rest of us with killing people. They exhibit this murderous tendency when we raise the issues of innocent people being executed and the strong race and class dependency of executions, and they effectively respond, "So what?" They exhibit this murderous tendency when they support the death penalty for crimes such as rape, sedition, and "striking one's commanding officer," or non-crimes like interracial dating, homosexuality, disobedience, and dissent. I can't imagine Ku Klux Klan-types opposing the death penalty.

<\!s><\!s><\!s>It should be clear that the murder rates provide absolutely no evidence that the death penalty deters murder. The deterrence effect of the death penalty can be inferred as well by examining other deadly situations. How effective is the death penalty in deterring, say, a suicide bomber? Or any suicide for that matter? How effective is the "death penalty" in deterring people from joining the army, neo-Nazi groups, inner city gangs, or the illegal drug trade? How effective is the prospect of death in eliminating car-driving or smoking? Some idiots don't seem to realize that they might be killed when they play the car game of chicken, or commit stunts like lying on the road. Given these, how can one expect the death penalty, no matter how efficiently or certainly applied, to deter virtually all would-be murderers?

The death penalty can only deter those who think to themselves, "Oh my God! It might happen to me!" It does not deter those who may oppose murder in general, but support killing in the special case of their own pet pseudo-moralistic cause; contrariwise, it can only encourage such killings. Nor does the death penalty deter those who vote for it in the legislatures or those who execute it.

Would avid supporters of the death penalty be persuaded to change their minds if one of their own were executed? I do not know. They would most assuredly scream bloody murder. I do not mean to suggest a false or wrongful execution, although I would consider such a thing poetic justice. Instead, I refer to numerous cases where the death penalty might be justifiably applied against them. For example, a Florida father railed about "Communists" and other assorted malefactors when his son was sentenced to death a few years ago for the KKK lynching of a black teenager. The lynching was reportedly committed to demonstrate the presence and power of the Klan in Florida.

Death penalty proponents, including Chung in his article, typically disregard the issue of innocent people being convicted and executed. In March 1988, Willie Darden was executed in Florida for a murder he did not commit. His murder trial was a virtual farce; his conviction had nothing to do with actual guilt or innocence. Despite receiving numerous appeals from all over the world, Governor Bob Martinez disregarded the flagrant unfairness of the trial and proceeded with the execution. A year and a half ago, Roger Coleman was executed in Virginia for a murder he did not commit. Despite strong evidence for his innocence, Governor Douglas Wilder continued with the execution.

I can imagine executing not only the governors for premeditated murder, but everyone else involved in those wrongful executions: the investigators, the prosecutors, the juries that convicted them, the judges that sentenced them to death, the numerous appeals court judges, and Supreme Court Justices that upheld the executions, etc. The Constitution allows government officials who have been impeached and convicted to be tried and punished in criminal courts for their offenses. One such mass execution might be just what's needed to make the death penalty supporters take notice.

I will mention two other cases where the innocent man was fortunate enough to have his conviction overturned before being executed. Last spring in Alabama, an appeals court overturned the conviction and death sentence of a man because it was discovered that the police had completely fabricated the case against him. He had been transported to death row even before the trial ever took place. There was not a shred of evidence that he actually committed the murder, and there was evidence for his innocence. I don't even know for sure that the murder for which he was tried ever took place.

In a case explored by the movie The Thin Blue Line Dallas police worked with the teenage murderer of one of their own officers to frame Randall Adams for the murder. The officers wanted to convict someone they could execute for the crime, and the actual murderer was too young according to Texas law at the time. Adams came within three days of being executed before his death sentence was overturned on a technicality. One school of thought maintains that one who drives the getaway car after a murder is as guilty as the one who pulled the trigger. In the same spirit, one may conclude that the officers who got the murderer off scot-free by framing an innocent person are as guilty as the murderer himself. Those officers may have their executables now.

In short, the death penalty supporters will not get what they've been dishing out to others. The unfairness inherent in this reminds me of other discriminatory aspects of the death penalty. The death penalty is far more likely to be applied when the suspect is black than when he is white, and when the victim is white than when he is black. In fact, the number of white people who have been executed for murdering black people in the past half century can probably be counted on one hand.

Likewise, only the poor have much of a chance to be executed for murder. The well-off generally can hire competent attorneys themselves, while the poor have to deal with public defenders. Although states are now required to provide attorneys for indigent defendants, the standard of competence required for death penalty attorneys in many states was revealed during the public discussion of the Roger Coleman case. The idea is that you place a mirror in front of his mouth; if it steams up, he's qualified. The poor have absolutely no resources to investigate the case independent of the police and to verify or falsify police claims. It should be clear that the death penalty does just the opposite of promoting decency and respect for life. It dehumanizes people and promotes murder. It can never be applied fairly. Massachusetts is doing perfectly fine without the death penalty, and should not fall into the trap of reinstating it.