BOOKS: Deadly Justice—A Statistical Portrait of the Death Penalty

In their new book, Deadly Justice: A Statistical Portrait of the Death Penalty, a team of researchers led by University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill political science professor Frank Baumgartner uses forty years of empirical data to assess whether the modern death penalty avoids the defects that led the U.S. Supreme Court to declare in Furman v. Georigia (1972) that the nation's application of capital punishment was unconstitutionally arbitrary and capricious. Their conclusion: "A reasoned assessment based on the facts suggests not only that the modern system flunks the Furman test but that it surpasses the historical death penalty in the depth and breadth of the flaws apparent in its application." Deadly Justice explores an enormous range of issues—including, among others, racial, gender, and geographical bias, innocence, deterrence, mental health, childhood abuse, length of time on death row, reversal rates, and execution methods—to determine whether the death penalty is fairly and proportionally applied and reserved for the "worst of the worst." Reviewing the data, Baumgartner et al. find that the modern death penalty "is it just as arbitrary, just as biased, and just as flawed as the pre-Furman system." Worse yet, they write, "it has added to these flaws increased levels of geographical focus on the South, even more concentration in just a few jurisdictions, astronomical financial costs unimagined in the earlier period, average periods of delay now measured in the decades, odds of reversal well over 50 percent, routine and often successful last-minute legal maneuvering even while the inmate is in the execution room and has been prepared to be executed, and a medicalization paradox that was not even imagined in the pre-Furman period." In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Baumgartner says "[t]he key driver in the system" is not the frequency of homicides or the nature of the murder but "the choices that district attorneys make .... There's really no rhyme or reason to it." He says the biggest change in public opinion began in the 1990s as evidence began to mount that "there might be innocent people on death row. ... The innocence argument has really shaken people's faith that you can count on the government to get it right every single time. ... The system is so tied up in knots, partly because of the concern of executing an innocent person. It's really hard to justify or have enthusiasm about a system so dysfunctional as the current modern death penalty, even if you're a prosecutor."

The researchers have created a website that makes available to the public—with updates—the data reported in the book.

(F. Baumgartner, et. al., "Deadly Justice: A Statistical Portrait of the Death Penalty," Oxford University Press, release date December 6, 2017;  K. Blakinger, “Houston: Ground zero for the death penalty,” Houston Chronicle, November 26, 2017.) See Books.