COMMENTARY: Death Penalty Climate Changing

Commentary from nationally syndicated columnist E.J. Dionne (pictured) and the New York Times reflected on the changing state of the death penalty in the U.S. in light of recent developments. Dionne cited the repeal of the death penalty in Connecticut as an example of a "remarkable pivot in the politics of the death penalty, the premier issue on which an overwhelming consensus favoring what’s taken to be the conservative side has begun to crumble."  He observed that "significant groups of libertarian Republicans and opponents of abortion have crossed to the repeal side." In an editorial titled "The Myth of Deterrence," the New York Times noted that "a distinguished committee of scholars working for the National Research Council has now reached the striking and convincing conclusion that all of the research about deterrence and the death penalty done in the past generation . . . should be ignored."  The Times concluded that other states should follow Connecticut’s lead in repealing the death penalty.  Read full texts below.

NEW VOICES: Jimmy Carter, Former President and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Calls for End to Death Penalty

In a recent op-ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter called for the end of the death penalty. President Carter cited the risk of wrongful executions, the lack of evidence of deterrence, and the costs of prosecution as reasons to abolish capital punishment. He wrote, “[T]here has never been any evidence that the death penalty reduces capital crimes or that crimes increased when executions stopped. Tragic mistakes are prevalent. DNA testing and other factors have caused 138 death sentences to be reversed since I left the governor’s office. The cost for prosecuting executed criminals is astronomical. Since 1973, California has spent roughly $4 billion in capital cases leading to only 13 executions, amounting to about $307 million each.” President Carter also cited the unfair application of the death penalty as an especially compelling reason for repeal: “Perhaps the strongest argument against the death penalty is extreme bias against the poor, minorities or those with diminished mental capacity. Although homicide victims are six times more likely to be black rather than white, 77 percent of death penalty cases involve white victims. Also, it is hard to imagine a rich white person going to the death chamber after being defended by expensive lawyers. This demonstrates a higher value placed on the lives of white Americans.” Read full op-ed below.

DETERRENCE: National Research Council Concludes Deterrence Studies Should Not Influence Death Penalty Policy

A report released on April 18 by the prestigious National Research Council of the National Academies based on a review of more than three decades of research concluded that studies claiming a deterrent effect on murder rates from the death penalty are fundamentally flawed. The report concluded: “The committee concludes that research to date on the effect of capital punishment on homicide is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates. Therefore, the committee recommends that these studies not be used to inform deliberations requiring judgments about the effect of the death penalty on homicide. Consequently, claims that research demonstrates that capital punishment decreases or increases the homicide rate by a specified amount or has no effect on the homicide rate should not influence policy judgments about capital punishment." (emphasis added).  Criminologist Daniel Nagin of Carnegie Mellon, who chaired the panel of experts, said, “We recognize this conclusion will be controversial to some, but nobody is well served by unfounded claims about the death penalty. Nothing is known about how potential murderers actually perceive their risk of punishment."

DETERRENCE: "How New York Beat Crime"

A new study by Professor Franklin Zimring of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law provides an in-depth analysis of the factors that influenced the dramatic twenty-year decline of street crime in New York City. According to the study, which was recently discussed in Scientific American, the rate of common crimes such as homicide, robbery and burglary dropped by more than 80 percent in New York City. By 2009, the homicide rate was lower than it was in 1961. Zimring suggests that one of the most influential factors in the reduction of crime rates was the improvement of policing around the city. Beginning in 1990, New York City added over 7,000 new uniformed officers. Along with adding new police to the streets, the city implemented several new strategies that were focused on high-crime settings. One of the tactics was deploying more police officers in crime "hotspots" that were determined by sophisticated data-mapping technology. Zimring concludes, "The steady, significant and cumulatively overwhelming crime decline in New York is proof that cities as we know them need not be incubators of robbery, rape and mayhem." The article also dispels some of the misconceptions about the drop in crime: Zimring states that it was not due to changes in the ethnic makeup of the city, to shifts in illicit drug use, or to an increased use of incarceration.

NEW VOICES: Author of California's Expanded Death Penalty Law Now Supports Repeal

Donald Heller (pictured) served as both a California and federal prosecutor and was the author of the state ballot measure that greatly expanded the list of murders eligible for capital punishment.  After the trial of one defendant, Heller volunteered to "throw the switch," a comment that earned him the name "Mad Dog."  But his views on capital punishment have changed sharply over the years.  A recent interview in the Los Angeles Times explored how Heller came to have his greatest regrets for his promotion of the death penalty.  He recently testified in California in support of a bill that would lead to ending capital punishment.  Heller said he first changed his mind about the death penalty after the execution of Tommy Thompson, who was convicted through what Heller believed to be "a clear abuse of the death penalty law."  He realized that the initiative he created "can and may have resulted in the death of an innocent person."  Heller debunks many arguments in support of the death penalty, including that it is needed to deter crimes.  He said, "Statistically, in a number of states where there is no death penalty, state crime has dropped. I have found from my years as a lawyer in the criminal process that it doesn't deter anyone. When someone kills, they're thinking of satisfying whatever [made them] decide to kill. They never think about the ultimate punishment."  He concluded, "My view is that as a civilized society, we've reached the point where capital punishment should be completely abolished."  Read full op-ed below.

NEW VOICES: Law Enforcement Officials Say Death Penalty Does Not Make Them Safer

A recent article by Terrence P. Dwyer (pictured), retired New York State Police Investigator, and George F. Kain, a police commissioner in Ridgefield, Connecticut, dismissed the notion that the death penalty is needed to protect law enforcement officers. Dwyer and Kain wrote that a majority of police chiefs believe that the death penalty does not deter violent crime and rank the death penalty last in a list of effective tools for fighting crime. "In states like New York, which abolished its death penalty in 2004, or North Carolina, where there has been a de facto moratorium since 2006, the numbers indicate no statistical increase in police officer homicides after the death penalty was repealed or rendered moot through moratorium," the authors wrote.  They also encouraged lawmakers to weigh the substantial costs of the death penalty in their decision-making. They stated, "The Connecticut death penalty costs $4 million annually, according to a 2009 estimate by the General Assembly's non-partisan Office of Fiscal Analysis. While capital cases in Connecticut account for just .06 % of cases in the Public Defender's office, the cost to defend these cases was nearly $3.5 million, over 7 % of the office's entire budget."

STUDIES: North Carolina's Death Penalty is Error-Prone and Rarely Applied

A new study from North Carolina shows that the state’s death penalty is error-prone and rarely implemented. A study of the death penalty from 1977 to 2009 found that two out of three death sentences were overturned on appeal, an error rate of 67%. The study also found that only 20% of death sentences resulted in an execution.  The review of the state's death penalty was made by Matthew Robinson, a professor of Government & Justice Studies at Appalachian State University. He made a series of  conclusions based on his research:

NEW VOICES: Former Prosecutors, Judges and U.S. Attorneys Urge Illinois Governor to Sign Death Penalty Repeal

A group of over 60 former state and federal prosecutors, judges, and other law enforcement officials recently wrote to Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois urging him to sign the bill passed by the General Assembly to repeal the death penalty. The law would also transfer state funds used for the death penalty to a fund for murder victims' services and law enforcement work. The group cited the death penalty's ineffectiveness in deterring violent crime and its high cost of implementation as the primary reasons for ending the death penalty. The letter stated, " Throughout Illinois, law enforcement officials are struggling to find needed dollars for police, forensic investigations, and aggressive prosecution of a wide range of criminal activity. The vast sums that would be spent on the death penalty in the years ahead are sorely needed for other, more effective law enforcement purposes." The letter also cautioned against retaining the death penalty in order to obtain guilty pleas in exchange for life sentences, saying that "using the death penalty as an instrument of coercion has led to false pleas and erroneous convictions."  And merely limiting the death penalty, the group said, " would not solve the underlying flaws that inevitably occur when the authorities are under pressure to win convictions in high-profile cases." See below for list of signatories.