The Death Penalty Is a Deterrent to Murder

Does the death penalty act as a deterrent to murder? According to the Death Penalty Information Center, as of this writing, 609 people have been put to death since individual states resumed executions in 1976. Yet people go right on killing each other.

“The facile notion that there’;s a link between the death penalty and deterring people doesn’;t hold water,” argues attorney Stephen F. Rohde, president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and a Board member of Death Penalty Focus. “Countries with the death penalty have higher crime rates than countries without the death penalty; states with the death penalty in the United States have higher crime rates than states without the death penalty; there’;s even evidence that … crime rates go up after an execution.”

If death penalty advocates are so convinced that the punishment is a deterrent, why aren’;t executions televised?

“I think they realize,” adds Rohde, “that it would put the death penalty in people’;s homes. It’;s reminiscent of news footage of Vietnam; when we finally saw the horror of Vietnam, that actually led to greater opposition to the war.”

Moreover, social and religious groups can’;t agree on the fine points of the morality involved. Some insist that it’;s wrong to take any human life (unborn children and convicted murderers alike). Others believe that it’;s wrong to take an innocent human life (e.g., a fetus), but it’;s okay to take a guilty human life (e.g., a murderer). Still others support abortion as a matter of choice, yet oppose the death penalty because of flaws in the legal system.

The fact is that most homicides in America are not premeditated. They are crimes of passion committed “in the heat of the moment” between people who know each other. In such circumstances, deterrence doesn’;t enter into the equation.

As quoted in David Rintel’;s Clarence Darrow for the Defense, “attorney for the damned” Clarence Darrow once explained his absolute opposition to the death penalty: “I never hesitated to defend a man accused of murder, if only to prevent a second murder, by the state.” Darrow’;s admittedly liberal logic is helpful in explaining the fallacy of the death penalty as a deterrent:

If people are really kept from punishment through fear, then the more terrible the punishment provided, the greater the fear. The old forms of torture should be brought back. (…) Our … lawmakers even seek to make death by the State as painless as possible, and thus take away most of the fear that is supposed to prevent the weak from committing crime.

Instead, the opposite is true, as states spend millions of tax dollars annually housing death row inmates and prosecuting their appeals through the court system. Ask the grieving, angry families of murder victims. At the heart of the capital punishment controversy is not deterrence, but revenge.

In explaining why the U.S. government had not executed any federal prisoners since 1963 while various states had been proceeding with their executions since 1976, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno announced at a January 21, 2000, Justice Department news briefing (reported by Reuters): “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. Before I authorize anything such as that, I make sure that the facts and the law justify it.”

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