By Chris Goodnow ’14
In 1965, a man named Robert Massie killed Mildred Weiss while robbing her and her husband at their home in San Gabriel, California. While Mr. Massie originally received the death penalty, the California Supreme Court commuted all death sentences to life in prison in 1972. Exhibiting “good behavior,” Mr. Massie was released on parole in 1978, only thirteen years after having committed a heinous atrocity. Less than a year later in January of 1979, Mr. Massie murdered San Francisco liquor storeowner Boris Naumoff in a petty theft of a couple hundred dollars. Mr. Massie was tried, convicted, and successfully executed in May of 2001.
Crimes like these are unique, but unfortunately not uncommon. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 15% of violent felons, defined as those who commit murder, aggravated assault or rape, will commit a violent felony again. We can speculate motives for such crimes, implement all the well-intentioned rehabilitation programs we can think of, and hire the most penetrating criminal psychiatrists, but none of these efforts will resurrect Boris Naumoff from the grave. Had Mr. Massie been executed after his first crime, pursuant to his judicious trial and conviction, we cannot say that Mr. Naumoff would still be alive today, but he most likely would have been alive in February of 1979. For those who claim to value life, however small or historically insignificant, they should find this trade-off to be acceptable, or at the very least deeply thought provoking. This anecdote is certainly not conclusive, but it does patently reveal the cost benefit analyses that are made with peoples’ lives as we continue to vacillate on the death penalty issue.
Considering this balance, the modern death penalty is a judicious mode of punishment, reserving the harshest sentence for the most atrocious crimes. While its utility as a deterrent to future crime is hotly disputed, capital punishment is an effective prosecutorial tool, ensuring the greatest justice for the largest number. It values the lives of lawful citizens above those who have consciously sacrificed their right to live by murdering a fellow human being. If a man is said to own himself, then there is no surer way to give up that ownership than to irredeemably obliterate the self-ownership of another. In what may appear to be an incongruent paradox, the death penalty is the surest way to uphold the sanctity of life.
The irrevocability of capital punishment has drawn many statistical analyses, the majority of which are in direct contradiction to one another. At one moment, a researcher will cite a 1973 study conducted by SUNY Buffalo Economics Chair Isaac Ehrlich, who found that for every inmate executed, there are seven lives spared as future criminals are deterred from committing homicides. In the same breath, a different researcher will note that US crime rates are higher than those of many other countries that have outlawed capital punishment altogether. The two researchers will then hurl academic studies and conflicting cost analyses at one another, claiming that their own data is causational, while their opponents’ is merely correlative. In truth, the motives for murder and the complexity of the individual human mind render most of these studies unhelpful. A country could have a lower murder rate for a whole host of reasons besides a ban on capital punishment, and it is certainly a stretch to forecast how many hypothetical lives were saved by a hypothetical execution. If death penalty data is not a wash, then it certainly is a muddled mess.
Despite these conflicting studies and academic opinions, it would be premature to assume that the death penalty has no deterrent effect whatsoever. Logically speaking, paying credence to our own run-ins with parental punishment, the larger the negative consequence, the less likely we are to perform a certain impermissible act. This is purely a product of my experience with the human race, not based in analyses or regressions, but I find it safe to assume that you will find this observation to be generally correct. Transplanting this logic to our discussion of the death penalty, Ernest van den Haag, a Professor of Jurisprudence at Fordham University, argues that, “capital punishment is likely to deter more than other punishments because people fear death more than anything else.” This principle is enshrined in our jurisprudence, where capital punishment is the last and final form of punishment. Even if the death penalty were not to convince a particular barbarian not to murder someone, van den Haag ultimately maintains, “they certainly would not be deterred by anything else.” As a product of deduction, capital punishment is therefore our most effective potential deterrent, even greater than a relatively comfortable life sentence without parole.
If the death penalty is the greatest potential deterrent that our system of justice can employ, then it also has the greatest potential to save future lives. This potential, even unrealized, is enough to justify capital punishment. If we are to live in a society that values human life, and more importantly those who value life themselves, then we must utilize all avenues that most effectively protect us from homicide. To allow one victim to perish at the hands of a criminal who would have been deterred by the threat of execution is unacceptable. Certainly, our criminal justice system is intended to protect the lives of potential victims above those of actual murderers. To oppose capital punishment in all cases, and to therefore unequivocally side with the murderer’s right to life, is to grant a barbaric criminal a greater justification for existence than the innocent and unsuspecting victim. To me, this is the greatest perversion of justice.
Even if we were to doubt my first premise, that the death penalty is our greatest potential deterrent, this still does not render capital punishment inert. As John McAdams, a Professor of Political Science at Marquette University wrote, “If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call.” Once again, if our society is to value life as both an ideal and a pragmatic concern, then the trade-off outlined here is certainly enticing. The fact that there is a hope of deterrent, which no study could ever erase, is enough to justify capital punishment’s utility as a mode of justice.
When death penalty skeptics encounter arguments like the one furthered here, they oftentimes raise concerns that we could mistakenly execute an innocent defendant. Certainly, capital punishment must be carried out carefully through a series of appellate processes to make sure that we execute only the deserving convicts. This is exactly why an inmate’s journey down death row takes decades, littered with attorneys, appeals, and delays. In an article for the Wall Street Journal in June of 2000, former District Court Judge Paul G. Cassell wrote, “After reviewing 23 years of capital sentences, [researchers] were unable to find a single case in which an innocent person was executed.” When a condemned convict is taken off death row, it does not imply that the system is broken and that the death penalty should be abolished but that the system is working exactly as it should—executing only those who deserve it.
All this said, it would be shortsighted to suggest that a lack of misused executions in the past invariably proves that we will never wrongfully execute somebody in the future. The system has proved its efficacy over decades, but skeptics continue to argue that the risk of accidently killing an innocent defendant is too great, most recently pointing to the case of Troy Davis. After granting Davis a temporary injunction, all nine members of the Supreme Court did eventually agree that there was sufficient evidence to executive him, essentially serving as our greatest check against wrongful capital punishment. The ever so slight chance that he was innocent does not disrupt the foundation of justice upon which the death penalty rests. Many essential human activities require risks that endanger our lives, whether that be driving a car or flying a plane. Just because a truck driver crashes into another vehicle, killing that driver, does not mean that we should outlaw driving. Human error is an immutable condition, and since we must assume that risk, I will join Professor McAdams and err on the side of protecting the truly innocent.
Other capital punishment skeptics still maintain that there is no reason to take this risk because there is no reason to ever employ the death penalty. Life sentences without parole are an equally effective mode of justice, allowing the murderer to live while making sure he will never kill again. I have already discussed the deterrent side of this argument; so let me briefly address the issue of societal cost. While death penalty opponents cite cost studies saying it is cheaper to incarcerate a criminal for life than to execute him, there are just as many studies arguing the exact opposite. We must therefore look not at how many dollars are spent, but how those dollars are spent.
As our prisons become more crowded, scarce resources must be stretched over larger inmate pools, meaning the care for each inmate is diminished as another criminal enters the prison system. Our most violent criminals, those who would be legally deserving of the death penalty, require the most resources to pay for their high security cells and “extended” stays in our nation’s jails. These are resources that are not being used to help rehabilitate criminals who actually will have the opportunity to be reintegrated into society. Therefore, regardless of the price differential between life in prison and capital punishment, dollars spent on a lifetime prisoner have no positive societal value, and they actually drain resources away from criminals who do have the chance to enter back into society as contributing members. Additionally, it is interesting to note that resources spent on an execution at least have the benefit of potential deterrence. If we are to look at life without parole as a balance of costs, the murderer wins while society loses.
It is no coincidence that justice is oftentimes personified as a blind woman holding scales, balancing the rights and responsibilities of both sides with no more bias than to pursue what is right. If we are to protect the life of a murderer, and in the process possibly endanger the life of a victim, then we are inherently assuming that the murderer’s life is more valuable than that of the innocent. This view is wholly unacceptable, for these barbarians who maliciously and senselessly kill their fellow men have no place in society and have consciously given up their right to live. They have committed crimes with full knowledge of the consequences, and they are therefore worthy of stern and swift punishment. An eye for an eye may make the whole world blind, but allowing men to gouge the eyes of others leaves us with a society in which only the malevolent may see. The death penalty does not undoubtedly prevent such a society, but it is our greatest safeguard against it.