Ed. Note: The following is a guest post by Alex Reese, a blogger over at Keep California Blue, an the Communications Director of the California Young Democrats, though the views here are expressly his own. We've discussed the death penalty a bit last week and Alex continues the discussion here . . . .
As the execution date of convicted murderer and alleged Crips co-founder Stanley “Tookie” Williams draws nearer, I’m taking the opportunity to take a broader look at the death penalty in America. In case you need to catch up, Williams was convicted for murdering a convenience store clerk and, later, three people at a motel. Stopping his execution has become a cause celebre, with famous personalities from Snoop Dogg to Jesse Jackson advocating on Williams’ behalf. From the beginning, Williams has maintained his innocence, and Governor Schwarzenegger has agreed to a private clemency hearing to consider the case.
The debate over the Williams case has reopened the question of America’s stance on the death penalty, and the debate has gone from California all the way to the White House: “White House press secretary Scott McClellan said it was important that the death penalty ‘be administered fairly and swiftly and surely, and that helps it serve as a deterrent.’” (Washington Post, December 2, 2005)
The “death penalty as deterrent” argument is a common one. Governor George Pataki used it when was fighting to reinstate the death penalty in New York in 1995. In a statement one year later, he claimed that New York’s falling crime rate was partially due to, “the strong signal that the death penalty sent to violent criminals and murderers: we won't excuse criminals, we will punish them.” (August 30, 1996) Besides simple common sense, the argument that the death penalty deters criminals has long relied on Isaac Ehrlich’s classic 1975 study showing that each execution prevented eight murders.
However, there is reason to doubt those numbers and even the argument that the death penalty deters criminals. Last January, Jeffrey Fagan, a Columbia Professor and architect of a study on the death penalty, attempted to debunk Ehrlich’s numbers. In testimony to the New York State Legislature, Ehrlich said, “Over the next two decades, economists and other social scientists attempted (mostly without success) to replicate Ehrlich's results using different data, alternative statistical methods, and other twists that tried to address glaring errors in Ehrlich’s techniques and data.” (Fagan Testimony, January, 2005) Fagan continued to say that almost all studies purporting a link between the death penalty and decreased crime rates are faulty. Perhaps his most damning criticism is that, “The studies avoid any direct tests of deterrence. They fail to show that murderers are aware of executions in their own state, much less in far-away states, and that they rationally decide to forego homicide and use less lethal forms of violence.”
Still other studies show that the death penalty executes innocent people. One study, headed by Columbia Professor James Liebman, found, “serious errors in 68%" of all capital convictions. Of course, that study, too, has been disputed – critics claimed that the study defined a “serious error” as any legal misstep, even if it was bureaucratic.
If the studies don’t convince, perhaps peer pressure will. I myself was surprised to find that a vast majority of American support the death penalty, despite the fact that even greater numbers believe that it recently has caused the death of an innocent person. A May 2005 Gallup Poll showed that 56% of American support the death penalty, with 39% preferring life in prison (and 5% with no opinion, for you bean counters out there). The same poll showed the 59% believed that an innocent person had been executed within the last five years. If you’re not sure where to land on the death penalty, don’t worry – the Supreme Court can’t decide either. In a landmark death penalty case, Furman v. Georgia 1972, two U.S. Supreme Court Justices said they thought that the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment in all cases (being on Phoblographer, I had to quote a court case) .
Personally, I’m not convinced yet one way or the other. On one hand, I’m not convinced that the state should be killing its own citizens. On the other hand, I do believe (and feel) that there are some crimes so heinous that the perpetrator doesn’t deserve to live. And to be honest, that’s the way I felt when I read Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley’s synopsis of the Stanley Williams case (see, it all comes full circle). The grisly details and overwhelming physical evidence are certainly convincing, but for me the clincher came when after the jury hands down the guilty verdict. Cooley quotes court documents when he writes that, apparently, Williams turned to the jury and mouthed the words, “I’m going to get each and every one of you mother f*ckers.” Of course, his supporters would point out that he’s a changed man and has worked for gang violence prevention for the last ten years. At any rate, while the Williams situation is certainly important in its own right, I hope that this post has successfully brought up some of the much bigger questions going on here.