During their final "debate," both Al Gore and George W. Bush blithely endorsed the death penalty. Bush said it's necessary to deter murder. Gore agreed, and under the scripted setup, that ended the discussion.
Surely, they wouldn't have said it if it weren't true.
Hardly. They said it because they thought it would gain votes. Given that a majority of Americans say they approve of the death penalty (though the number has been dropping of late), the men in the somber blue suits weren't about to veer from the uni-party line.
But the death penalty doesn't deter murder, and may even increase it, according to a growing number of studies. More than 80 percent of 70 top criminologists who might be expected to support capital punishment acknowledge that it does not deter murder.
Attorney General Janet Reno (whose boss flew to Arkansas to lord over the execution of a retarded man during his 1992 campaign), has said, "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."
But those are mere opinions. Consider these recent studies, which are a mere sampling of similar data:
In Oklahoma, a researcher found not only that there was no deterrent, but also that there was an increase in stranger killings after the death penalty was resurrected in that state.
One damning 1997 study paired adjacent counties from neighboring states matched according to demographic, economic and historical variables one of which had the death penalty, while the other did not. It found that rates for violent crime, including homicide, were higher in the counties of states with capital punishment.
The South, which accounts for 80 percent of all executions in the U.S., has a murder rate higher than the national average. Meanwhile, the Northeast, where less than 1 percent of executions take place, has the lowest murder rate.
So if there is no deterrent effect to the death penalty, then what do we accomplish each time the state murders somebody in our names?
Nothing good, it seems. We've all heard about the unacceptably high number of people on death row who recently have been exonerated, and anybody who isn't blind can see capital punishment is applied unfairly to the poor and minorities.
Sister Helen Prejean, the nun portrayed in "Dead Man Walking," has pointed out that every execution creates an entire new family of victims the relatives of the executed. In 1996, when Colorado executed its first prisoner in decades, I saw how the death penalty reopens and rips new wounds for the families of murder victims. The murder of the murderer does not give them solace, studies have shown, and the lengthy nature of capital cases (both Constitutionally, morally essential) ensures that they will have to relive their nightmares again and again.
Back in 1988, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was blasted for not emoting enough when he explained his anti-death penalty position following a question about how he would feel if his wife were raped and murdered.
But Dukakis was on target: Emotion, or the anguish personal loss, shouldn't determine state policy on execution. Yes, victims' families may feel rage and desire vengeance, but is that the way we want to run our government?
Those who think death penalty is a good idea might go on the web and check www.deathpenaltyinfo.org. You'll find that available research overwhelmingly flies in the face of the conventional wisdom about "deterrence."
And if you don't like the death penalty, please consider signing a petition calling for a worldwide moratorium that will be presented by Prejean to the United Nations on Dec. 10, Human Rights Day. You can find it at www.moratorium2000.org.
Copyright 2000 The Daily Camera