Politics & Policy

The Shaky Case against the Death Penalty

It’s weaker than most people realize.

After the recent mishandled execution in Oklahoma, in which the murderer ended up dying from a heart attack, death-penalty opponents pounced. 

Not surprisingly, the Sunday-morning talk shows focused on whether we should keep the death penalty. ABC News’s This Week was hardly a balanced panel, with four members wanting to abolish the death penalty and the fifth wanting “maybe a halfway point between eliminating it” and what we currently have.

Let’s analyze the three main arguments made on ABC against the death penalty.

#ad#1. “Support for the death penalty has fallen from 80 percent in 1993 [actually 1994] to 60 percent in 2013.”

Has support for the death penalty fallen since 1994? Sure, but what ABC News didn’t explain was that the years chosen were carefully cherry-picked. Support for the death penalty in 1994 was the highest ever recorded, according to Gallup. But consider instead all the 43 surveys from 1936 to 2012. Those surveys showed that an average of 63.8 percent of Americans supported the death penalty. Sixty percent in 2013 is down slightly from the average over the preceding 76 years, but it was hardly an earth-shattering change.

And why has support dropped? Probably because crime has fallen. In 1994, the murder rate was 9.0 per 100,000 people. By 2012, it had fallen to almost half that, 4.7. 

2. “Some states . . . for the same crime [are] three times more likely to sentence an African-American defendant to death. I think that’s very, very troubling. . . . Race is an issue.”

This is simply false. In murder cases, whites are executed much more frequently. Nationally, from 1977, when the death penalty was reinstituted, to 2011, the last year for which the FBI has compiled data, 64.7 percent of those executed were whites, but whites committed only 47 percent of the murders

Nor do individual states stand out in the way this statement claimed. I went through the totals for each individual state over the seven years from 2005 to 2011, and none have the imbalance the ABC News panel complained about. Missouri was close, with five blacks and two whites executed. Only three other states, including heavily Democratic Maryland, executed more blacks than whites, and in each case only one more black was executed. (To see state-by-state data for a given year in this range, search for “capital punishment [insert year] statistical tables.”)

An honest evaluation has to start with explaining why white murderers are executed at a much greater rate than black murderers.

3. “We still see 60 percent still supporting it despite the fact that innocent people are on death row.” . . . ”I am troubled by the fact that there are people who have been exonerated through DNA. That’s horrific, and we have to do something about that.”

Nobody wants an innocent person convicted. The Innocence Project claims that, since 1989, 34 people convicted of any type of murder have been exonerated by DNA evidence; of these, 18 had been sentenced to death. In that same time, about 260,000 Americans have been convicted of murder, with DNA evidence being used in about 12,000, or 4.5 percent. The error rate then was less than 0.3 percent, and it is actually much lower than that, since many of the exonerations came from convictions that were made before 1989. Furthermore, DNA evidence has improved its accuracy in trials over the past couple of decades, as it has become more commonly used. There is an old saying that it is better to let ten guilty people go free than to convict one innocent person. But the current system seems to be doing much better than that.

Finally, all this ignores one extremely important point: There is overwhelming evidence that the death penalty deters murder and saves lives. Combine that with the fact that errors, few to begin with, are becoming ever less common, and objections to the death penalty are basically eviscerated.

— John R. Lott Jr. is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and the author of More Guns, Less Crime.

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