Capital punishment drops, murder rates jump. Coincidence?
Early this month, New York City police stood 20 rows deep as the hearse carrying the body of Officer Wilbert Mora, 27, passed. Mora and his partner, Jason Rivera, 22, had been ambushed and killed by a repeat felon.
Their murders, two of the city's 485, highlight why crime, especially the nation's surging homicide rate, should join inflation as a fall election issue. Not just crime, but also capital punishment.
The spike in killings nationwide over the past two-plus years reverses nearly two decades of decline. Republicans point at self-described "progressive" Democratic prosecutors who, in the post–George Floyd anti-police atmosphere, decline to try not only shoplifters but also violent offenders.
Victims include growing numbers of policemen like Mora and Rivera. According to the National Fraternal Order of Police, a record 346 officers were shot while on the job last year, of whom 63 died.
One hundred three of those attacks were ambushes like the one that killed Baltimore policewoman Keona Holley, 39, a mother of four. Two suspects were arrested, partly with the aid of surveillance camera images, but not before they drove across the city and allegedly murdered someone else.
The United States, with a population of 330 million, recorded nearly 21,000 homicides in 2021, up approximately five percent from 2020, which spiked 30 percent over 2019. Nine of the 30 biggest cities set records for murder, including more than 500 in Philadelphia. Yet executions of murderers have nearly ceased. Coincidence, correlation, or causation?
Capital punishment, still on the books in 24 states, continues a long fadeout. Three states have imposed a moratorium, and the 23 others have abolished the ultimate sanction altogether. As a result, 11 people, 10 men and one woman, were executed in the United States last year.
Underlying the politics of crime and punishment — including the death penalty — is confusion about what makes orderly society possible.
Homicide numbers are not just statistics:
On January 23, Melissa Ortega, 8, was walking with her mother in Chicago when she was murdered, shot in the head by a thug firing at a man leaving a store nearby. Ortega was one of the city's 797 homicide victims last year, the most in 25 years and more than any other U.S. city.
Last March, in Washington, D.C., two girls, ages 15 and 13, killed a 66-year-old deliveryman in an attempted carjacking. In October, firefighter Garry Stanley, 44 — who had helped rescue three children in 2017 and volunteered at a homeless center — was shot and killed near Washington Nationals Park. Altogether, D.C. tallied 227 killings in 2021, up 15 percent from 2020.
Many murders are "heat-of-the-moment crimes of passion," so the possibility of capital punishment may not provide sufficient psychological deterrence. However, numerous other homicides, committed in the presence of surveillance cameras, in daylight on city streets, and for passing or profitless motives, seem to spring less from passion than nonchalance.
Who cares, those committing such crimes seem to ask, at least enough to respond seriously? After all, most killers, if caught, tried, and convicted, are not sentenced to life in prison, let alone death. They also know that long sentences do not necessarily translate to time served.
Retired British prison psychologist Theodore Dalrymple noted years ago that after Britain abolished capital punishment in 1965, its homicide rate doubled. The types of killings that once would have led to the death penalty, such as murders by those on parole for lesser crimes, "increased disproportionately." They would have risen even more but for greatly improved trauma medicine.
In addition to such indirect evidence of capital punishment's deterrent effect is its social value. U.S. Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart opposed what he called arbitrary and racially disproportionate imposition of the death penalty. But as he later explained, "in part, capital punishment is an expression of society's moral outrage at particularly offensive conduct. This function may be unappealing to many, but it is essential in an ordered society that asks its citizens to rely on legal processes rather than self-help to vindicate their wrongs[.]"
Murder is a crime. Execution, the awful responsibility of a lawful state, is not a synonym, but the opposite. It's time to reassert the difference.
The writer is author of From Elvis to Trump, Eyewitness to the Unraveling; Co-Starring Richard Nixon, Andy Warhol, Bill Clinton, the Supremes and Barack Obama!, newly released by Academica Press.