"And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God"
-- Micah 6:8

"The duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict."
-- American Bar Association Standard 3-1.2(c)

"There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia."
--Pope Benedict XVI, June 2004

Friday, December 15, 2006

Capital Punishment: "Rare, if not practically non-existent"

Alright, it's a long-time in coming, I'll grant you. But here is my Part Two offering of why the capital punishment system in this country actually conforms even with a "strict" view of contemporary Catholic teaching, which would have it that we should execute "rarely" and only if non-lethal means are unavailing. (Part one of this saga is here).

The first observation is the easiest: the death penalty is in fact a "rare" occurence in this country by any standard.

In 2005, about 16, 692 people were murdered in this country (bet you had no idea this crime was so prevalent). 60 inmates were executed in 2005, which is about average, although the number of executions is in slow decline.

Even my substandard math skills tell me that means that .3 % of murders are punished by an execution.

Granted, this is a rough approximation, since the 60 executions were not carried out in punishment of murders occurring in 2005; they were carried out for murders occurring over several different years prior to 2005. In actuality, therefore, the number of executions as a percentage of the number of homicides is actually even less, since the number of executions in any given year punish murders which occur over a span of different years.

Nevertheless, even viewed as a trend over ten years, we see that since 1995, an average of 77.2 executions were carried out per year, while the average number of homicides per year over the same time period was 18, 916. So taken over a ten year time frame, the average execution-to-murder-committed-rate is a scant .4%. Yes, that's right, less than one-half of 1% of murders are punished by an execution.

Now, "rarity" is commonly defined as "coming or occurring far apart in time; unusual; uncommon; thinly distributed over an area; few and widely separated." As a factual, pragmatic, concrete observation, therefore, there can be no question that executions in this country are only "rarely" carried out in any meaningful sense of that word, as it relates to punishment for homicides.

The anti-death penalty crowd have in fact been boasting about how many fewer executions have been carried out in recent years. NPR just the other day ran a segment trumpeting recent declines in cases where the death penalty is imposed as evidence of a general rejection of capital punishment. In reality, however, homicide rates have declined to the lowest level since the 1960's; in general terms, with fewer homicides you will find fewer death penalty cases. Also, parenthetically, one must wonder whether the resurrected use of the death penalty has something to do with the drop in the homicide rate.

So then, as to the contemporary Church position that executions should occur "rarely," case closed.

Next time, in Part III, we'll see whether the American system of capital punishment on the whole executes those who, unless they were executed, it "would not be possible to otherwise defend society."


Stephen J. said...


The statistics you quote are impressive, and I don't disagree that people in hysterics over the "frequency" of the death penalty are overreacting.

But at the same time, I call to mind an old saying: "Integrity is like a balloon: no matter how good the rest of the rubber is, the air still goes out the hole."

In other words, there are some things where 100.0% certainty is needed. No leaks. No errors. No mistakes. Ever.

You may be one of those lucky prosecutors who is utterly confident, with good reason, that nobody but nobody for whom you ever sought the death penalty was undeserving of it. But even if you are utterly certain that you've made no mistakes in your prosecutorial career... can you be certain you will never make any? Ever?

Can you make the same guarantee of 100% accuracy for all your colleagues in states with similar laws?

Can you guarantee that even if you make no mistakes with the evidence you're given, that that evidence itself will never be corrupted by error or falsified by malice before you receive it?

And can you extend that guarantee into the future for your successors, and your colleagues' successors, for so long as such laws shall obtain, promising that no innocent man will ever die for the sake of punishing the guilty?

It's not the moral licitness of executing the guilty that leads me to be very wary of capital punishment; it's the practical inevitability that one day an undeserving person will die for the sake of that justice, due solely to human fallibility if not human malice. That innocents die in war may be unavoidable given the very nature of war; I think it is a rather more questionable assertion to state that innocents dying from capital punishment is unavoidable given the very nature of justice.

Vir Speluncae Catholicus said...

How DARE you point out the obvious! Is it any wonder that your common sense is at odds with the *JIFC&CJS?

*Judas Iscariot Fan Club & Circle Jerk Society, AKA: the USCCB

Dudley Sharp said...

Why the reduction in death sentences?
Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
The evidence supports that the reduction is caused by:
--- the dramatic reduction in murders/capital murders
--- prosecutorial frustration
----SCOTUS decisions

1. Murders are down nearly 40%. While death sentences are down around 60%, from their all time high, There very well may have been around a 60% reduction in capital murders, since the all time high of death sentences.  I have heard from a number of prosecutors that they have seen a dramatic reduction in the type of crimes that they would consider death eligible. 
This is the obvious reason for the large reduction in death sentences.
Career criminals, including career juvenile criminals, are being incarcerated much longer, and earlier, thereby curtailing their activities, including committing capital murders.
All categories of crime have been reduced. Because capital murders are a special type of crime, primarily murders accompanied by secondary crimes, such as robbery and rape, it is even more likely that capital murders have been reduced even more than murders.
2. SCOTUS decisions.  Ring required a re writing of statutes in many death penalty states, causing a substantial reduction. Atkins and Simmons have both had a reduction effect, as well.
This is an additional factual reason for a reduction in death sentences.
NOTE: There can be anywhere from a 1-3 year lag time between the murders and the death sentences given.  Because of various SCOTUS cases, that lag time may have increased a bit.
3.  Many prosecutors now know that appellate judges in their jurisdictions won't allow executions. Some of those prosecutors have become much more reluctant to seek death. I would call that realistic frustration with agenda driven judges  -- such as Federal Judge Rakoff -- - not prosecutors deciding to be more selective on their own.
This, likely, has caused some small reduction in death sentences sought.
Of course, most prosecutors have always been very selective in pursuing death penalty cases.

Some false or speculative reasons for the reduction in death sentences.
--  Anti death penalty folks state that all those "innocents freed" from death row have caused prosecutors to be more wary in pursuing the death penalty. This is a false claim.
There is no evidence to support that claim. To the contrary, virtually all death penalty prosecutors now know that 70-83% of those anti death penalty  "innocence" claims are false and that prosecutors are 99.7% accurate in convicting the actually guilty in death penalty cases and that the 0.3% actually innocent  are released on appeal. 
That will give prosecutors more confidence in prosecuting these cases, not less.

--  Some prosecutors believe the "CSI effect" is responsible for a reduction in death sentences, because jurors are now demanding  more scientific support for death sentences.
There is no evidence for this, that I know of. 
 --    Some speculate that the crime lab disasters have caused jurors to be more distrustful of lab results and prosecutors and that may explain some of the reduction. I can't say that hasn't happened, but I can't find evidentiary support for it either.
During this period of alleged distrust, a May, 2005 Gallup polling shows an increase in support for the death penalty  -- to 74% -- and a majority believe that we don't impose the death penalty often enough. This 74% support is within the margin of error of the all time high for support.
An October 2005 Gallup poll showed 64% support - a 10% drop -  even though there had been no major death penalty news to warrant the drop. A January 2005 poll found 81% of Connecticut citizens supported the execution of serial rapist murderer Michael Ross.
Historically, I am told, jurors give less than death in 2/3rds of death penalty trials. Is there any evidence that jurors are now even less likely to find for a death sentence? Not that I know of. 

What of the reduction in executions? It is 1) the normal ebb and flow of cases, plus 2) SCOTUS cases, plus 3) crime lab problems.
Blind speculation is unnecessary. There are logical, factual reasons for the reduction in death sentences.

copyright 2005-2006

Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
e-mail  sharpjfa@aol.com,  713-622-5491,
Houston, Texas
Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O'Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.
A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.
Pro death penalty sites
www(dot)yesdeathpenalty.com/deathpenalty_contents.htm (Sweden)

athanasius said...

you have got to love numbers. They bring clarity to issues that activists love to muddy.

On that same note, I await, with some enthusiasm, the first example of an innocent person who has been executed.

In short -- theory bad; facts good.

AustinDefense said...


Similar to death penalty advocates’ argument that capital punishment is a 100% specific deterrent in specific cases, isn’t it fair to counter your argument here by saying that it probably feels like a 100% rate to the specific defendant being executed?



Stephen J. said...

Athanasius: For examples of innocent persons wrongfully executed, see David Margolick, "25 Wrongfully Executed in U.S., Study Finds," N.Y. TIMES, Nov. 14, 1985, at A19.

That's an old study; perhaps some of the cases cited in that article have been re-evaluated and guilt confirmed with advancing forensic science. I would still be very surprised, indeed perhaps a little suspicious, to find all those cases retroactively justified.

And, in truth, whether it's twenty-five, five, or even as little as one, I'm very wary of any viewpoint which speaks in terms of "acceptable" losses. It may be necessary for war to do so; I would suggest that we don't want the justice system to start taking the same approach. Ever.