Can Executing Murderers Save Lives?

Connecticut's new governor and Democratic legislative majority have promised to abolish capital punishment despite public opinion to the contrary.  They're not alone.  Most European governments have abolished death sentences regardless of public opinion.  "There is barely a country in Europe where the death penalty was abolished in response to public opinion rather than in spite of it," stated Joshua Marshall in The New Republic.  "In other words, if these countries' political cultures are morally superior to America's, it is because they are less democratic" (Death penalty news).

It's unfortunate that majority opinion in Connecticut will likely be ignored.  True, majorities are not always right, but when an issue has that much support among citizens regionally and nationally -- as in Europe and America -- Connecticut's state government should pay more attention.  Gallup's latest poll has 64% of Americans supporting capital punishment while 29% oppose (for especially atrocious crimes, support rises to 80%).  Even more important to Connecticut, the latest Quinnipiac Poll shows that 65% of people statewide favor the death penalty for murder.

In 1999, Russell Peeler ordered the murders of eight-year-old Leroy "B.J." Brown, Jr. and his mother, Karen (B.J. witnessed her execution before being shot in the head).  In 2005, Kim and Tim Donnelly of Fairfield were coldly shot to death in their family-run jewelry store.  And in 2007, Cheshire residents Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters were sexually abused and murdered in a case still receiving national attention for its viciousness.  Some of the perpetrators of these crimes will spend the rest of their lives on death row, but most likely, none will be executed.  As State Rep. Mike Lawlor pointed out, "[t]he way the current law is written, nobody is ever going to be executed again in Connecticut, unless they force the issue" (Seven news).

Half of Americans believe capital punishment is not imposed enough, while just 18 percent think it is imposed too much (2010 Gallup poll).  Indeed, this mirrors Connecticut, where capital punishment is almost completely unused: nine convicted murderers are still awaiting execution (one death row inmate has been there for 22 years); 19 have longstanding death penalty cases, and only one person has been executed since 1960 (Michael Ross begged to have his execution carried out).  Could this lack of swift justice be the cause of future murders?  Can execution save lives?

The academic world has been weighing in on the deterrence effect.  As reported in a testimony given by Dr. David Muhlhausen before a U.S. Senate Subcommittee (read testimony here), over the last ten years, several studies have confidently asserted to confirm that capital punishment deters murders, saving three to eighteen lives for every one person executed.  Dr. Naci Mocan, a death penalty opponent and economics professor at the University of Colorado at Denver, co-authored a 2003 study and a 2006 study reexamining evidence.  The studies evaluate state-level data on the influence of individuals removed from death row, those executed, and those who received commuted sentences between 1977 and 1999.  Dr. Mocan concluded that the effect of one execution is five fewer murders.

Other studies assert similar results (Heritage Foundation):

Using a panel data set of over 3,000 counties from 1977 to 1996, Professors Hashem Dezhbakhsh, Paul R. Rubin, and Joanna M. Shepherd of Emory University found that each execution, on average, results in 18 fewer murders.

Two studies by Paul R. Zimmerman, a Federal Communications Commission economist, also support the deterrent effect of capital punishment. Using state-level data from 1978 to 1997, Zimmerman found that each additional execution, on average, results in 14 fewer murders.

Using a small state-level data set from 1995 to 1999, Professor Robert B. Ekelund of Auburn University and his colleagues analyzed the effect that executions have on single incidents of murder and multiple incidents of murder. They found that executions reduced single murder rates, while there was no effect on multiple murder rates.

Certainly, more studies are needed, and old studies should be reexamined.  However, if it is likely that innocent lives are saved by executing (not just convicting) cold-blooded murderers, then Connecticut leaders need to consider the ramifications of abolishing the death penalty.  

I believe that Professor John McAdams from Marquette University makes a strong case on this point: "If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers.  If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of ... innocent victims.  I would much rather risk the former" (American Bar Association).

We owe it to the surviving families of the above-mentioned victims to review the facts and save other families from unnecessary suffering.  Most people weigh the costs and benefits of their actions, and for murder, the cost should be as great as possible.  The academic world is onto something.

Chris DeSanctis is an adjunct professor in the Department of Government and Politics at Sacred Heart University and a district 6 member of the Representative Town Meeting in Fairfield.
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