The death penalty as a deterrent

Death Penalty
by Marvin Olasky

Posted on Monday, October 7, 2013, at 1:10 pm

Editor's note: Marvin Olasky’s cover story in the current issue of WORLD magazine focuses on what the Bible says about the death penalty and what life is like on death row. In a series of 10 columns here on (posted Oct. 7–18), Marvin addresses public policy issues involving deterrence, discrimination, and arbitrariness in capital punishment.

Does the death penalty deter potential murderers? Statistics: About 15,000 murders nationwide. About 50 executions, which means that if a person contemplating murder were to stop and estimate his chance of execution, he’d see it was one in 300—and that seems unlikely to deter anyone.

To eliminate virtually any possibility of execution, perpetrators should be rich enough to hire a good lawyer and farsighted enough to commit the murder in a county that doesn’t want to spend money on investigating or aggressively prosecuting murders. It doesn’t so much matter what the race of the perpetrators is as what the race of the victims is: African-American victims get less attention than white ones.

It would seem logical for serial killers to be more severely treated than one-offs, but that’s not always the case: A serial killer with information the government wants may be able to cut a deal. For example, Gary Ridgway in 2003 pled guilty to killing 48 people in Washington state but traded detailed confessions for a life sentence rather than the death penalty. In 2004, prosecutors let former nurse Charles Cullen escape capital punishment when he agreed to plead guilty to killing 13 hospital patients.

About two-thirds of death sentences are overturned on appeal. When appeals courts order a new trial, only one-in-five times does the second jury also vote for capital punishment. You can find more statistical information in The Death Penalty Information Center’s 2011 report, “Struck by Lightning.”

In Texas, the number of new death sentences has declined over the past decade, from 37 in 2002 and 28 in 2004 to eight or nine each year from 2009 through 2012.

Listen to Marvin Olasky discuss his cover story on the death penalty on The World and Everything in It:

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is Reforming Journalism. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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