Washington Post


The motto of the New York Times is “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” The other day, the paper ran a story showing that capital punishment is not a deterrent. This was certainly fit to print. It just was not news.

It may however be news to the millions of people who have listened to politicians—especially George W. Bush—tell them over the years that nothing deters all sorts of crime, particularly murder, like the specter of the hangman. This is simply not the case, and no one who has given the matter any thought could possibly believe it.

Let’s look at the Times’ figures. The paper reports that the 12 states that do not have the death penalty do not have higher homicide rates than those which do. In 10 of the 12, in fact, the rate is lower. As for the states that instituted capital punishment after the Supreme Court reinstated it in 1976, their homicide rates have gone up, up, up. In other words, the death penalty does nothing.

Bravo to the Times for pointing this out. But as I said at the outset, this is not news. Over the years, crime figures have been analyzed and reanalyzed, and always the conclusion is the same: Capital punishment fails to deter.

But you don’t need statistics to see this. Just read any newspaper. Killers come in two varieties—those in the grip of passion or drugs (alcohol, for instance) and those who think they cannot be caught. The former can’t be deterred. Neither can the latter, but if they could, life without parole would surely do the trick.

The Times has given us a wealth of data. Massachusetts, a populous, ethnically diverse state, has a lower murder rate than next-door Connecticut. The Bay State abolished the death penalty in 1984; Connecticut still has it—although a lot of good it does.

But the real lesson has always been right there in the crime statistics: Texas. It’s far and away the nation’s No. 1 executioner—231 since 1976, 144 under Bush and 32 this year alone. Still, somehow, Texas has a murder rate of 6.78 per 100,000 residents. The figure for Massachusetts is 2.0. Massachusetts is no anomaly. Get the Justice Department’s
“Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics” online (www.albany.edu/sourcebook) and see for yourself.

Despite the figures, our politicians continue to support the death penalty. They sometimes argue that society has the right both to punish and to avenge. This is a harder argument to rebut, since it is based on emotion and, often, religious conviction. Who cannot understand the urge to do to some killer what he has done to someone else?

And yet, government also has the obligation to set an example. Never mind that DNA testing has proved that mistakes can be made, or that the death penalty is exorbitantly expensive to administer or, for that matter, that the rich never are executed. Just ask yourself what capital punishment preaches. It is that, under certain circumstances, a life can be taken, a killing revenged. But if the state has its reasons, the killer had his. We play his game, accept his logic. This is why you read about murderers who waive all appeals and proceed at quick march to their death. They understand. The government’s only doing what they would do.

It would be one thing if the death penalty really was a deterrent. Then opponents like me would be in a fix. I’d still have the same moral qualms, but I’d be hard-pressed to argue that we ought to suffer a high murder rate just to make a point about the value of human life. It would be easier, too, to put up with the occasional mistake—here and there an innocent person executed. The “greater good” would be argued. But none of that is true. Instead, to accomplish nothing we run the risk of killing the innocent.

Bill Clinton’s quest, we are told, is for a legacy. Here is one within his reach: Commute the 21 federal death sentences to life in prison. In this way, the president could show moral leadership in an area where few politicians dare to speak their mind. He could say he has looked at the statistics, read stories about what DNA testing has shown—and changed his opinion.

“I know the future is with me,” Clarence Darrow told the court when he pleaded for the lives of the killers Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold. That was 1924. Clinton could bring the future a bit closer. Call it a bridge to the 21st century. Walk it, Bill.