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         In short                      The deterrence hypothesis                 A Broken System:Error Rates in Capital Cases

Capital Punishment and Deterrence: Examining the Effect of Executions on Murder in Texas. Authors John Sorenson, Robert Wrinkle, Victoria Brewer, and James Marquart examined executions in Texas between 1984 and 1997. They speculated that if a deterrent effect were to exist, it would be found in Texas because of the high number of death sentences and executions within the state. Using patterns in executions across the study period and the relatively steady rate of murders in Texas, the authors found no evidence of a deterrent effect. The study concluded that the number of executions was unrelated to murder rates in general, and that the number of executions was unrelated to felony rates. (45 Crime and Delinquency 481-93 (1999)).

Deterrence, Brutalization, and the Death Penalty: Another Examination of Oklahoma's Return to Capital Punishment. In this study, author William Bailey speculated that if executions had a deterrent effect in Oklahoma, it would be observable by comparing murder rates and rates of sub-types of murder, such as felony-murder, stranger robbery-related killings, stranger non-felony murder, and argument-related killings, before and after the resumption of executions. Bailey examined the period between 1989 and 1991 for total killings and sub-types of killing. After controlling for a number of variables, Bailey found that there was no evidence for a deterrent effect. He did, however, find that there was a significant increase in stranger killings and non-felony stranger killings after Oklahoma resumed executions after a 25-year moratorium. (36 Criminology 711-33 (1998)).

Effects of an Execution on Homicides in California. Author Ernie Thompson examined criminal homicides in Los Angeles before and after California's execution of Robert Harris in 1992, the state's first execution after a 25-year moratorium. Thompson found slight increases in homicides during the eight months following the execution. (3 Homicide Studies 129-150 (1999)).

The Geography of Execution: The Capital Punishment Quagmire in America. Keith Harries and Derral Cheatwood studied differences in homicides and violent crime in 293 pairs of counties. Counties were matched in pairs based on geographic location, regional context, historical development, demographic and economic variables. The pairs shared a contiguous border, but differed on use of capital punishment. The authors found no support for a deterrent effect of capital punishment at the county level comparing matched counties inside and outside states with capital punishment, with and without a death row population, and with and without executions. The authors did find higher violent crime rates in death penalty counties. (Rowman and Littlefiled Publishers, Lanham, MD (1997))

Source : Death Penalty Information Center

  Research reported in Homicide Studies, Vol. 1, No.2, May 1997, indicates that executions may actually increase the number of murders, rather than deter murders. Prof. Ernie Thomson at Arizona State University reported a brutalizing effect from an execution in Arizona, consistent with the results of a similar study in Oklahoma.
The three leading states where law enforcement officers were feloniously killed in 1998 were California, the state with the highest death row population (7); Texas, the state with the most executions since 1976 (5); and Florida, the state that is third highest  in executions and in death row population (5).  (FBI, Uniform Crime Reports, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, 1998)

At her weekly Justice Department news briefing, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno said that she has yet to find any evidence that the death penalty deters crime. "I have inquired for most of my adult life about studies that might show that the death penalty is a deterrent. And I have not seen any research that would substantiate that point," said Reno. (Reuters, 1/21/00)

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the South repeatedly has the highest murder rateIn 1999, it was the only region with a murder rate above the national rate. The South accounts for 80% of executions. The Northeast, which has less than 1% of all executions in the U.S., has the lowest murder rate.



A Broken System:
Error Rates in Capital Cases, 1973-1995

Executive Summary

There is a growing bipartisan consensus that flaws in America's death-penalty system have reached crisis proportions. Many fear that capital trials put people on death row who don't belong there. Others say capital appeals take too long. This report—the first statistical study ever undertaken of modern American capital appeals (4,578 of them in state capital cases between 1973 and 1995)—suggests that both claims are correct.

Capital sentences do spend a long time under judicial review. As this study documents, however, judicial review takes so long precisely because American capital sentences are so persistently and systematically fraught with error that seriously undermines their reliability.

Our 23 years worth of results reveal a death penalty system collapsing under the weight of its own mistakes. They reveal a system in which lives and public order are at stake, yet for decades has made more mistakes than we would tolerate in far less important activities. They reveal a system that is wasteful and broken and needs to be addressed.

Our central findings are as follows:

  • Nationally, during the 23-year study period, the overall rate of prejudicial error in the American capital punishment system was 68%. In other words, courts found serious, reversible error in nearly 7 of every 10 of the thousands of capital sentences that were fully reviewed during the period.

  • Capital trials produce so many mistakes that it takes three judicial inspections to catch them—leaving grave doubt whether we do catch them all. After state courts threw out 47% of death sentences due to serious flaws, a later federal review found "serious error"—error undermining the reliability of the outcome—in 40% of the remaining sentences.

  • Because state courts come first and see all the cases, they do most the work of correcting erroneous death sentences. Of the 2,370 death sentences thrown out due to serious error, 90% were overturned by state judges—many of whom were the very judges who imposed the death sentence in the first place; nearly all of whom were directly beholden to the electorate; and none of whom, consequently, were disposed to overturn death sentences except for very good reason. This does not mean that federal review is unnecessary. Precisely because of the huge amounts of serious capital error that state appellate judges are called upon to catch, it is not surprising that a substantial number of the capital judgments they let through to the federal stage are still seriously flawed.

  • To lead to reversal, error must be serious, indeed. The most common errors—prompting a majority of reversals at the state post-conviction stage—are (1) egregiously incompetent defense lawyers who didn't even look for—and demonstrably missed—important evidence that the defendant was innocent or did not deserve to die; and (2) police or prosecutors who did discover that kind of evidence but suppressed it, again keeping it from the jury. [Hundreds of examples of these and other serious errors are collected in Appendix C and D to this Report.]

  • High error rates put many individuals at risk of wrongful execution: 82% of the people whose capital judgments were overturned by state post-conviction courts due to serious error were found to deserve a sentence less than death when the errors were cured on retrial; 7% were found to be innocent of the capital crime.

  • High error rates persist over time. More than 50% of all cases reviewed were found seriously flawed in 20 of the 23 study years, including 17 of the last 19. In half the years, including the most recent one, the error rate was over 60%.

  • High error rates exist across the country. Over 90% of American death-sentencing states have overall error rates of 52% or higher. 85% have error rates of 60% or higher. Three-fifths have error rates of 70% or higher.

  • Illinois (whose governor recently declared a moratorium on executions after a spate of death-row exonerations) does not produce atypically faulty death sentences. The overall rate of serious error found in Illinois capital sentences (66%) is very close to—and slightly lower than—the national average (68%).

  • Catching so much error takes time-a national average of 9 years from death sentence to the last inspection and execution. By the end of the study period, that average had risen to 10.6 years. In most cases, death row inmates wait for years for the lengthy review procedures needed to uncover all this error. Then, their death sentences are reversed.

  • This much error, and the time needed to cure it, impose terrible costs on taxpayers, victims' families, the judicial system, and the wrongly condemned. And it renders unattainable the finality, retribution and deterrence that are the reasons usually given for having a death penalty.

Erroneously trying capital defendants the first time around, operating the multi-tiered inspection process needed to catch the mistakes, warehousing thousands under costly death row conditions in the meantime, and having to try two out of three cases again is irrational.

This report describes the extent of the problem. A subsequent report will examine its causes and their implications for resolving the death penalty crisis.

It is possible to find the full report at the justice project web site.



The Deterrence Hypothesis

One often cited pro-death-penalty argument is based on what is called the deterrence hypothesis. The deterrence hypothesis suggests that states with a death penalty will have lower homicide/murder rates than state without a death-penalty because the lethal consequence of committing a homicide/murder will "deter" individuals from committing the crime in the first place.

While this hypothesis seems to make intuitive sense to many, the vast number of empirical studies overwhelmingly demonstrate that the presence or institution of a death-penalty has no significant influence of homicide/murder rates in general, or on specific acts of homicide/murder such as the killing of police officers or of prison guards. In fact, contrary to the intuitive appeal of this hypothesis, studies which are not inconclusive most often show that murder/homicide rates are higher in states with a death-penalty than those without (see Peterson & Bailey, Journal of Social Forces, (66), 774-781, 797-800, 1988; also in "A capital Punishment Anthology," ed. by Victor Streib, Anderson Publishing Company, 1993).

(Note: Currently, New York is an unviable example for the deterrence effect since violent crime had decreased before the death penalty was re-instituted.)

I strongly recommend this review article to anyone on either side of the death-penalty issue. This summary of empirical studies should generate much concern, especially for those living in states with a death-penalty. If past studies are an indication of what we can expect in states pursuing the adoption of a death-penalty, they would indicate that these efforts will result in an INCREASE in homicide/murder rates!

This should be grave cause for concern for anyone worried about homicide/murder rates. It would seem, as a purely personal observation, that this flawed hypothesis represents the basis for much support for the death-penalty. Unfortunately, this well-motivated sentiment (to reduce homicide/murder rates) may actually have the opposite consequence of increasing these rates. The irony of this suggests that we cannot allow intuitive, emotional arguments to substitute for informed, empirically motivated decisions. If the research shows that our efforts actually yield an increase in violent crime, we seriously need to re-think our current policies--assuming, of course, that we really want to reduce murder rates.

William Earl Griffin
The University of Texas at Austin


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