One minute after midnight

The blogs are abuzz about this morning’s execution of convicted murderer Stanley Williams. I don’t have the time or inclination to write a lengthy post, but thought it would be useful to note some of the conversations.

Background: Williams killed four people in 1979, and around the same time, he founded a violent street gang. In more recent years, he has claimed to have reformed while in prison. Various of his supporters have nominated him for Nobel prizes. (Though, as professor Eugene Volokh notes, there are serious questions about the accuracy of Nobel nominations as a barometer of character).

Some interesting thoughts on the execution can be found at Crooked Timber — Chris Bertram makes an argument that the state is executing a different person than the murderer, due to changes in Williams’ character. Jon Carrol raises a standard anti-death-penalty argument: “A society should be slightly more civilized than its sociopaths.” And Doug Berman discusses the morality of clemency.

If you’re looking for a diatribe in either direction, you won’t find it here. Many of my friends and colleagues are deeply opposed to the death penalty on a philosophical level. I am not. I really have no moral qualms about the use of capital punishment in a case of perfectly clear guilt. (I have no opinion on whether guilt has been sufficiently established in the Williams case).

Other friends and colleagues are staunch proponents of the death penalty; I don’t fall within that camp either. I think that I’m at least somewhat familiar with the realities of the criminal justice system, and I am deeply troubled at how actual cases are decided. I have very strong procedural reservations about the use of the death penalty, but they are only procedural.

I don’t know that Mormonism requires a position one way or the other on this issue. It’s an interesting topic. For some start thoughts on the question of how our views on the death penalty should be impacted by our Mormonism, let me recommend Gordon’s excellent prior post from a while back, which also generated many interesting comments.

Alas, that’s all that I have time to say on the topic. I recognize that there are a lot of interesting issues here, and I’ll defer to our excellent commenting community to bring them out.

p.s. This is a sensitive topic. BE NICE.

101 comments for “One minute after midnight

  1. To clarify, his claim to have reformed center on an acknowledgment that forming the street gang was wrong–he never admitted to murder.

  2. Politically speaking, I am for the DP. However, if I found myself on the jury in a capital murder case and found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, I would have a hard time sending him to his death. This is something I have pondered for a long time, and am just not sure how I could do it.

  3. Kaimi: actually, my impression is that this case is not generating a great deal of outrage. I’d prefer that we not execute anyone at all, but an acceptable compromise would be only executing the murderous founders of criminal conspiracies. If I were to choose, I’d have Tim McVeigh rotting away in a prison cell for the rest of his miserable existence, but you know what? The world is pretty much A-OK without him in it, too. Us bleedingheart liberals are saving up the crocodile tears for worthier causes.

  4. Count me in the camp of those deeply opposed to the death penalty. In fact, I was all set to write something a few days ago on this very issue, until I read the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s response to Stanley Williams’ petition for clemency ( In this document, the D.A. describes in disturbing detail how Williams delighted in the murdering of innocent people for a few dollars.

    Although, even after reading this horrific account of Williams’ crimes, I still vehemently disagree with a state-administered death penalty (I’d rather the victims’ families exact their own vengeance on the murderer), his victims should not be forgotten when we discuss the life (and now death) of Stanley Williams – no matter whether he transformed himself in prison, wrote compelling books for children, and was nominated for the Nobel Prize.

    To answer the original question of this post, I don’t think Mormonism requires Mormons to adopt a uniform view of the death penalty. I seem to remember an article in the SL Tribune awhile back that reiterated that the Church is officially neutral with respect to the death penalty. My own views on the death penalty have been shaped by my belief in Christ’s atonement, which is available to even the worst sinners among us, and also by the despicably unjust treatment of racial minorities and the poor by the U.S. court system in determining who should live and who should die.

  5. Re: “I don’t know that Mormonism requires a position one way or the other on this issue.”

    It doesn’t.

    The Church’s position is: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regards the question of whether and in what circumstances the state should impose capital punishment as a matter to be decided solely by the prescribed processes of civil law. We neither promote nor oppose capital punishment.”

    My own healing by God’s grace and current reading in the BoM (e.g. here, here, here, here, here, and
    here) has moved me away from supporting capital punishment because of the warnings about those who die in their sins being unable to inherit the kingdom of God. I suppose it would be better to lengthen their mortal probation to give them more time to repent.

  6. Tim J, they’d probably exclude you from that jury on those grounds.

    I’ve listened to a lot of stories about this. It does sound like he highly exaggerated his connection to the gangs though. But it also sounds like his proclamations of innocent are highly questionable. While one can criticize the statement by the Governor, it does sound right that someone who refuses to confess or show remorse for his sins doesn’t exactly endear one to a clemency request.

  7. I am very intrigued by Elisabeth’s statement that she opposes the state-administered death penalty because she would “rather the victims’ families exact their own vengeance on the murderer.” Is she some sort of anarchist?

  8. I wish I could find the reference, but I remember a Mike Royko column basically saying that the decision to administer the death penalty should be left up to the deceased. You kill an old lady with a soft spot, you’re safe, but if you kill an old man with a mean streak, you’re toast.

  9. My thought on the matter is that capital punishment can not be an effective deterrent unless it is used frivolously and mercilessly and with great consistency, such as has been seen in eras of revulationary France and the wild west. It just is not a solution to a problem.

  10. Julie – Royko envisioned a world where everyone had written down their death penalty preference before they died. :)

  11. Tim J – I second your thoughts, I am also a proponent of the death penalty. But I am also of the feeling of does the state have the right to take life? Can a jury of our peers make this decision?

  12. A few people, now dead, might support the death penalty for murderers.

    “• Some 80 years ago, Charles Fitzgerald killed a deputy sheriff and was given a 100-year prison sentence as a result. He was released after serving just 11 years, and in 1926 murdered a California policeman. He was given “life” for that killing, but was paroled in 1971.

    • In 1931, “Gypsy” Bob Harper, who had been convicted of murder, escaped from a Michigan prison and killed two persons. After being recaptured, he then killed the prison warden and his deputy.

    • In 1936, former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover reported the case of a Florida prisoner who committed two murders, received clemency for each, and then murdered twice more. On March 17, 1971 Hoover told a congressional subcommittee that 19 of the killers responsible for the murder of policemen during the 1960s had been previously convicted of murder.

    • In 1951, Joseph Taborsky was sentenced to death in Connecticut for murder, but was freed when the courts ruled that the chief witness against him (his brother) had been mentally incompetent to testify. In 1957, Taborsky was found guilty for another murder, for which he was electrocuted in May 1960. Before his execution, he confessed to the 1951 murder.

    • In 1952, Allen Pruitt was arrested for the knife slaying of a newsstand operator and sentenced to life in prison. In 1965, he was charged with fatally stabbing a prison doctor and an assistant prison superintendent, but was found not guilty by reason of insanity. In 1968, his 1952 conviction was overturned on a technicality by the Virginia Supreme Court. He was re-tried, again found guilty, but given a 20-year sentence instead of life. Since he had already served 18 years, and had some time off for “good behavior,” he was released. On December 31, 1971 he was arrested and charged in the murder of two men in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

    • In 1957, Richard Biegenwald murdered a store owner during a robbery in New Jersey. He was convicted, but given a life sentence rather than death. After serving 17 years, he was paroled. He violated his parole, was returned to prison, but was again paroled in 1980, after which he shot and killed an 18-year-old Asbury Park, New Jersey girl. He also killed three other 17-year-old New Jersey girls and a 34-year-old man.

    • A man convicted of murder in Oklahoma pleaded with the judge and jury to impose the death sentence, but was given life instead. He later killed a fellow inmate and was executed for the second killing in 1966.

    • In 1972, Arthur James Julius was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. In 1978, he was given a brief leave from prison, during which he raped and murdered a cousin. He was sentenced to death for that crime and was executed on November 17, 1989.

    • In 1976, Jimmy Lee Gray (who was free on parole from an Arizona conviction for killing a 16-year-old high school girl) kidnapped, sodomized, and suffocated a three-year-old Mississippi girl. He was executed for that second killing on September 2, 1983.

    • Also in 1976, Timothy Charles Palmes was on probation for an earlier manslaughter conviction when he and two accomplices robbed and brutally murdered a Florida furniture store owner. Palmes was executed for the killing on November 8, 1984. An accomplice, Ronald Straight, was executed on May 20, 1986. (The other accomplice, a woman, was granted immunity for testifying for the prosecution.)

    • In 1978, Wayne Robert Felde, while being taken to jail in handcuffs, pulled a gun hidden in his pants and killed a policeman. At the time, he was a fugitive from a work release program in Maryland, where he had been convicted of manslaughter.

    • In 1979, Donald Dillbeck was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison for murdering a Florida sheriffs deputy. In 1983, he tried to escape. In January of this year he was transferred to a minimum-security facility. On June 22nd, he walked away from a ten-inmate crew catering a school banquet. Two days later, he was arrested and charged with stabbing a woman to death at a Tallahassee shopping mall.

    • In 1981, author Norman Mailer and many other New York literati embraced convicted killer Jack Henry Abbott (who had murdered a fellow prison inmate) and succeeded in having him released early from a Utah prison. On July 18, 1981 (six-weeks after his release), Abbott stabbed actor Richard Adan to death in New York. He was convicted of manslaughter and received a 15-year-to-life sentence. Mrs. Adan sued Abbott for her husband’s wrongful death and her pain and suffering. On June 15, 1990, a jury awarded her nearly $7.6 million.

    • On October 22, 1983 at the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, two prison guards were murdered in two separate instances by inmates who were both serving life terms for previously murdering inmates. On November 9, 1983 Associate U.S. Attorney General D. Lowell Jensen told a Senate subcommittee that it is impossible to punish or even deter such prison murders because, without a death sentence, a violent life-termer has free rein “to continue to murder as opportunity and his perverse motives dictate.”

    • On December 7, 1984 Benny Lee Chaffin kidnapped, raped, and murdered a 9-year-old Springfield, Oregon girl. He had been convicted of murder once before in Texas, but not executed. Incredibly, the same jury that convicted him for killing the young girl refused to sentence him to death because two of the 12 jurors said they could not determine whether or not he would be a future threat to society!

    • Thomas Eugene Creech, who had been convicted of three murders and had claimed a role in more than 40 killings in 13 states as a paid killer for a motorcycle gang, killed a fellow prison inmate in 1981 and was sentenced to death. In 1986 his execution was stayed by a federal judge and has yet to be carried out.

    • When he was 14, Dalton Prejean killed a taxi driver. When he was 17, he gunned down a state trooper in Lafayette, Louisiana. Despite protests from the American Civil Liberties Union and other abolitionist groups, Prejean was executed for the second murder on May 18, 1990.”

  13. I understand the distaste for the death penalty, and to be honest with you I’m not very happy with it either. But when you put someone in jail for life w/o the posibility of parole, isn’t that also in essence taking their life as well? Confining someone to an 10’x10′ box until the day they die, seems to me to be a rather brutal punishment as well. Honestly to me it seems to be a more brutal punishment than the death penalty. Someone sentenced to life w/o parole in their earlier 20’s could easily spend 60+ years in prison. Imagine living in a small room the size of a small bedroom, likely with a roommate, stainless steel toilet in the corner for the rest of your life. Condemned to a life with no hope.

  14. This is a subject that touches my life and family very directly. Just yesterday I found a quote on “The High Road” forum that sums up the experience of my family, specifically my wife, her family, and my daughter; “Mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent!”, including mercy based on racial or religious discrimination. I have seen the judicial system of the state of Utah practice religious and racial discrimination in the application of the Death Penalty in a way that victimises the families of murder victims where the perpetrator was (culturally, at least) a “good local white mormon boy” who avoided execution, specifically John Jacobs, Mark Hoffman, and that Mark who killed the Soares girl. They all got to avoid the death penalty, preventing a sense of justice and closure to the families, while the families of the victims of the Ogden Hi-Fi Shop murderers got to get some closure because the state went ahead and executed perpetrators who were black, non-mormon, and non-Utahn. One of the reasons that I am in Washington state was to try to minimize the devastating psychological effect of having a member of my wife’s family murdered by one of the above mentioned perpetrators. The victims of a murder include not just the person who is dead, but also their family, friends, and loved ones. It tears apart families, and does lifelong damage to children. My daughter was not even born at the time her Aunt was murdered, and even though she is one of the strongest and most spiritual Latter-Day-Saints that I know (certainly more valiant than either of her parents), she still suffers much distress from what happpened to her mother and extended family through the years. Much of the anguish and unhappiness and stress that I have witnessed may still have occurred if the law had been applied more fairly and had all of these perpetrators been executed, but I still feel even so that the Book of Mormon is right (Alma 34:11-12) when it says that there are cases where capital punishment is appropriate.

  15. They’ve done some interesting studies on that. From what they have gathered, it appears that, once people have come to terms with their environment, they can be reasonably happy regardless of the circumstances. Which is why those on death row usually fight the imposition of the death penalty.

    Yes, the no hope is a significant downer. But the treatment in prisons is not completely inhumane, they get fed well, they have recreation and time off. All in all, life isn’t so bad. That is not for a moment to say they wouldn’t prefer to be outside. But they can live with it. Which is why the Lord appears to have allowed slavery at some times in human existence; quite often the life of slaves was not all that bad. Yes, they had no freedom; they could be raped or abused; but they were also valuable property. Not a justification for slavery, just an acknowledgement that we can learn to live with very difficult circumstances, as people who are paralyzed or deaf or blind can do.

  16. “Most murders” aside, there are major three types of people on death row and an important fourth type.

    1. Career criminals (most likely to be on death row for the wrong murder — not that they haven’t murdered or been guilty of death penalty offenses, just that they are the most likely to be on the row for the wrong murder).
    2. Serial killers.
    3. Compulsively emotionally violent people.
    4. Innocent people who are caught up in the aftermath of heinous crimes.

    Almost all people on death row become socialized to the death row culture while they are in the relative isolation of death row and the cultural group that interacts with death row inmates. The longer the delay in execution, the more the socialization, though it often fades quickly when they leave death row.

    I don’t have an answer, just wanted to note that comments that pass on the realities are not going to persuade people who deal with the system.

  17. I am not only for the death penalty, I am against the length of time it takes between the conviction and the execution. Someone in their 40s could receive the death penalty and die of natural causes in their 80s before the appeals process is over. I agree that people should have the chance for an appeal or two, but the time spent on these appeals appears excessive.

  18. Hi, gst – Yes, I am an anarchist at heart philosophically (“if men were angels…..â€?), but my main point in comment #7 was that state sponsored killings promote the same callous disregard for life the murderer showed towards his/her victims by allowing the murderer to die peacefully in his/her sleep (courtesy of the Eighth Amendment).

    The death penalty is all about revenge – it cannot be about restitution (how can you restore a lost life?), and it is certainly not a deterrent. This act of vengeance rightly belongs to the victims’ families and loved ones – not to me, or to society at large.

  19. Wow- lots of good responses.

    Jonathan: Yes, this is not generating _as much_ commotion as some other executions have. Still, it’s in the news. The Nobel nominations (which, for my money, are vastly overrated) make a nice soundbite.

    Elisabeth: I agree that the atonement creates difficulties for the death penalty. I think (though I’m not 100% sure) that it limits our ability to justify the death penalty based on vengeance. Numerous scriptures — we are required to forgive all, etc. — seem to support this idea.

    Also of note is that Christ personally intervened in an execution, with the famous admonition that he who is without sin cast the first stone. That’s a data point that weighs heavily on the side of vegneance not being an acceptable motive for Mormons.

    On the other hand, there are other possible motives. For one, further crime prevention (see Jefe’s comment). For another, atonement — see also the sometime Mormon doctrine of blood atonement.

    And there is the reality that, even if vengeance is not an acceptable motive for Mormons due to our beliefs in the atonement, it may be acceptable to the rest of society. And so we run into the same problems of enacting our moral beliefs into law that arise in the context of abortion or gay marriage — although this time the results cut in the opposite direction, politically.

    By the way, I’m glad to see that you’re an anarchist, E. That explains a lot about the recent blog home you’ve decided to take up, with those ne’er-do-wells at BCC . . .


    Agreed on the need to discuss the issue as it affects certain distinct subsets of people. It will have vastly different impacts on one group versus another.


    Your comment highlights one of the more disturbing aspects of the death penalty — in practice, it is not applied even-handedly, and the result is often outrageous.

  20. My two cents.

    I believe society has a right to protect itself, to draw a line and say “this far and no further.” To me, remorseless killers like McVeigh and Williams have crossed that line.

    On the more flippant side, I like the line from the character Foreman on the TV show “House.” When the topic of the disparity between the execution of blacks and whites is brought up, he says the answer is simply to execute more whites.

  21. I’ve lived in death penalty states and non-death penalty states and I can’t say I felt any safer in one over the other.

    That said, this is one area where I’m quite comfortable leaving it up to the state legislature. If enough people don’t want their state to execute they can lobby the legislature to eliminate it.

    Mark in WA: thank you for your comments. My grandparents were murdered 25-years-ago and there are still lingering effects familywide and personally. I’m not comfortable explaining any more than that; I hope you’ll understand.

    Elisabeth: I can’t support your idea that the death penalty is only about revenge. In your paradigm, couldn’t one consider all penalties (jail time, monetary restitution, mandatory community service) invalid because they are vengeful? I don’t think it a matter of revenge to ask that a criminal be penalized for a conviction, I think of it as justice. You commit crime A, there are penalties. How else would we keep any sense of societal order?

    I also see a big difference between the death-by-execution of someone found guilty of a capital crime in a legitimate trial and the death of a teenager who was wearing a particular pair of pants the gunman wanted (we recently had this happen in our town). One is the taking of innocent life, the other is the taking of life from someone who has forfeited his right to continue to live in our society.

    Lastly, I really have a hard time with either side in this debate discussing deterrence. That some will still kill despite the penalties attached does not demonstrate the lack of deterrence on a greater societal level. At the same time, claiming that lining-’em-up-and-mowing-’em-down would strengthen the penalty as a deterrent similarly falls flat to me.

    Both sides have measures that show/disprove deterrence and I find both intellectually dishonest. To truly test the penalty’s power as a deterrent would require we figure out how many people would have committed a capital crime but chose not to because they didn’t want to forfeit their right to continue to live. I don’t know that we can really make that measure.

    Hence, my stance. If the people of a state want to have capital punishment and can honorably administer such a jurisprudence, so be it. If they don’t want it, convince the legislature to remove it from the books.

  22. The argument that the death penalty is a specific deterrent (that is, it deters the specific person who is being executed, as distinct from a general deterrent) is quite strong.

  23. Here’s a question for all of you Americans:

    (N.B. I’m not spoiling for a fight here, I just want understanding. I reacted very negatively to a recent execution in Maryland, but didn’t get much sympathy. Je ne comprend pas.)

    Forget the justice vs. mercy thing. Forget even the alleged inequalities of the system. What I simply do not understand is the death-penalty-as-deterrent-thing.

    America has the highest murder rate of any western country. A person gets murdered in the UK (population 60 million) and it makes national news. A person gets killed in Baltimore (population 0.5 million) and no-one cares. The point being that WAY more people are murdered in the US than in Europe.

    Yet, Baltimore, Md. has the death penalty as a “deterrent”, right? So, is it not working? Or do you not kill enough murderers? How do American death-penalty advocates explain the tiny murder rate in Europe when criminals do not need to fear for their lives if they pull the trigger? What’s the difference? (And it ain’t just issues of poverty: urban Europe is also riddled with hopelessness. Nor is it just guns: Canada, anyone?)

    Your assignment: help this liberal Brit understand America.

  24. Regardless of one’s beliefs about the morality of the death penalty in the abstract, I don’t think there is any good argument that the way the death penalty is actually administered in the US is either efficient or fair. Just as a matter of monetary cost, the death penalty is an unmitigated disaster. As soon as a prosecutor announces an intention to seek the death penalty, the costs start piling up. The state spends much more on the prosecution, and (usually) the state spends MUCH more on the defense (so as to avoid a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel on the part of the court-appointed defense). There are more motions, voir dire takes infinitely longer, more experts, more likely sequestration, and the trial is much longer. Plus there are two phases of trial: guilt and punishment, with accompanying complications. And then the many years of appeals begin, all with many, many lawyers billing many, many hours directly to the state. As a result of these appeals, over 60%(!) of the death sentences are tossed out anyway. When this happens, most of the sentences become life sentences, and all the previous expenditures are effectively wasted. To take an extreme example, the state of New York has spent $100 million on death penalty cases since Pataki re-instituted it. And no one has been executed so far. Texas is a bit more “efficient,” but on the whole most states are more like New York than Texas. They execute one or two people a year, and spent untold millions (over the cost of life incarceration) to do so. Even death penalty proponents must admit we’re not getting value for the money. Of course, the money that is wasted on the death penalty could be spent elsewhere — compensating victims, increasing the police force in violent neighborhoods, longer periods of incarceration, etc. To me, this makes the legitimate moral argument about the death penalty beside the point.

  25. Ronan, my sense is that most Americans approve of the death penalty as just desert. I’m one of them. I have no idea whether it’s a general deterrent.

  26. It is my belief that it is deeply immoral to allow a person who kills in cold blood to keep his own life.

    The person whose life was taken cannot experience happiness, pleasure, or any other emotion connected with having a physical body. The murderer who is sentenced to life in prison will still experience these things, even with the limitations of his prison cell. Depriving the murderer or his own life is the only just consequence we as a society can mete out in exchange for his horrific crime.

    I can understand the opposing point of view for all the opinions I hold, save this one. I truly do not understand the opposition to the death penalty for first degree murder. That opposition seems to be based on a flawed morality — “all life is sacred”, “the state should not take life”, etc. — that is an extension of the cultural drift in Western civilization since the end of World War II.

  27. I might add that those who claim that the innocent could be executed in error have yet to demonstrate that this has happened since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S. in 1977. Not one credible case for an innocent person receiving the death penalty has been made.

    As long and frustrating as the appeals process is, it seems to do exactly what it is supposed to do: Keep the innocent (or the possibly innocent) from being killed. Greg Call (#26) is shocked that 60% of death sentences are overturned. I see this as a positive thing — we only want to execute people who are truly guilty.

  28. Mike, I saw Tony Robbins (Tony Robbins!) on Larry King explaining that there have been wrongful executions. He then inspired me to Maximize My Personal Power, and walk on hot coals.

  29. Mike: The fact that 60% of death sentences are overturned only shows that the brutally expensive trial process is a total waste in 60% of the cases that result in death sentences. Would you keep investing in a business where your quality assurance personnel found that 60% of the time, the (hugely expensive) production process was creating a defective product that had to be tossed out?

    As for your claim about a lack of evidence of any innocents being executed, I think this is wrong, although you and I might disagree on what is “credible.” This, for example, seems pretty credible to me.

  30. Mike: An additional point on innocence (which is not my main point; see comment 26): Many of the exonerations of innocent death row inmates have been a result not of a careful appellate process, but rather investigative journalists and committed students finding new evidence (such as DNA tests) which proves that the State got it utterly wrong. In other words, the system did not find the error, but rather someone from outside the system did. Last time I checked, over 100 death row inmates had been completely exonerated since the death penalty became available again in 1973.

  31. Interesting news article, Greg; thanks for bringing it to my attention. If the recantation is legitimate (the article doesn’t mention why the witness recanted now, more than 10 years after the fact; what are his motives?), this would be the only example I have seen of an innocent person being executed. No process is perfect, but over 1,000 executions in nearly 30 years with an error rate of 0.1% seems pretty good to me.

    As far your comparison of death penalty cases to business production, I think you’re comparing apples and oranges here. Criminal law is not a product that is bought and sold, it is (or at least should be) a search for truth and justice. Do some overzealous prosecutors go for the death penalty when they shouldn’t? Sure. But on the flip side, many legitimately guilty people have their cases overturned because the evidence wasn’t as clear as it could have been, or they managed to get really, really good lawyers, or the case was heard before a judge known to overturn death penalty cases. So that 60% figure doesn’t actually indicate how many really innocent people were spared execution.

    Personally I would like to see death penalty cases fast-tracked with their own specialized appeals courts and a greatly tightened timeline to file and argue appeals. I agree with Eric (#18) about 40-year-old murderers dying of old age on death row. Let’s get the appeals process down to 10 years or less and have the cases heard by judges who only do capital cases.

  32. I have reservations about the death penalty except for the more horrific crimes. But I also think to completely eliminate the death penalty removes an important lever that motivates many criminals to confess information that is needed by law enforcement.

  33. Mike: My comparison was simply trying to raise the issue of efficiency. I think taxpayers should get value for their dollar. What’s your take on the State of New York spending $100 million of taxpayer money and having zero executions to show for it? Would you want your State to continue to have the death penalty no matters its marginal cost over life imprisonment? I think it is a legitimate issue, and a reasoned assessment will show that the system is broken and should be scrapped based on monetary costs alone.

  34. Greg #33: But activist groups and interested parties would use their research to file on behalf of defendants during the appeals process, making those things part of “the system.” I don’t think any death penalty supporter would argue that only the state and defense attorneys should have a say in the appeals process. Those 100 overturned cases are an example of “the system” working as it should.

    Again, supporters of the death penalty only want to see guilty people executed. Anti-death penalty groups are a good thing in that they keep a check on runaway prosecutions.

  35. Danithew: Somehow law enforcement gets confessions in Massachusetts, Michigan, Wisconsin, and the other states that don’t have the death penalty (not to mention Britain, France, Russia, and the rest of the civilized world). There is absolutely no evidence that the existence of the death penalty gets suspects to confess.

  36. Greg #36: The problem in New York is a political one. Political bodies are notorious for spending huge amounts of money and getting very little return.

    I don’t think the only options there are continue to waste money vs. scrapping the system. The third alternative is to fix the system so that costs are reduced and the guilty are executed.

    Congress just passed a $240 billion highway bill stuffed with pork projects. Because this is a waste of public money, should we never have another highway bill? Should we never build another road or bridge anywhere again? Obviously not.

  37. Mike: The system should not have to rely on investigative journalists to show that the police, the prosecutor, the jury and the judge got it wrong on such a big issue as life and death. And even when that is shown, sometime the system doesn’t care. In one case in Texas, a judge rule that DNA testing was not allowed, because, as the attorney general argued, “evidence of innocence is irrelevant.” That defendant was executed.

  38. FWIW, I am a death penalty supporter, but I do not support it because I think it deters crime or increases confessions. I support it because it is immoral to allow a murderer to live.

    I think that DP supporters should drop the deterrence argument because it is virtually impossible to prove, and, once disproven, DP is likely to be done away with. Instead, we should focus on DP as a moral issue.

  39. Mike: Why is the problem in New York a political one? The reason no one has been executed in New York is that the sentences have all been tossed out as violating Federal constitutional law. (In case you think this is an issue of “activist” judges, I would point out that a majority of the New York Court of Appeals is composed of Pataki appointees, and Pataki is the one who instituted the death penalty in the first place).

  40. Greg #40: I see absolutely no reason why investigative journalists cannot play a part in this process. Please tell me why it is so, for it makes no sense to me why anyone should be excluded from exonerating an innocent person.

    That, in fact, is one of the glorious things about U.S. constitution — the people have inalienable rights and the government exists to defend those rights. When the government does not defend those rights, the people may speak out against it. If the legal process fails an innocent man, anyone may come to his defense.

  41. Mike: So you’re saying that the system works fine because it allows people to show that it didn’t work fine? What about the cases that don’t pique the interest of the press? Or the many cases the Innocence Project turns down for lack of resources?

    You wrote: “If the legal process fails an innocent man, anyone may come to his defense.”

    Except when that innocent man is executed.

  42. Greg #44: “So you’re saying that the system works fine because it allows people to show that it didn’t work fine?”

    Absolutely. It’s part of the right to petition enshrined in the First Amendment. No man-made government is perfect because the people who run it do not always act with the best of intentions. Our legal system is one of the best at protecting the rights of the accused, with guaranteed counsel, trial by jury, the option for change of venue, the guarantee of multiple appeals, and the amicus brief. All of these exist to correct injustice.

    “What about the cases that don’t pique the interest of the press? Or the many cases the Innocence Project turns down for lack of resources?”

    It’s hard to respond to generalities, but I suspect that often cases that don’t get picked up in the press or championed by activist groups because the case against the defendant was so convincing. An example of a man whose wrongful execution was not noted by the media would be helpful.

    ‘If the legal process fails an innocent man, anyone may come to his defense.’ Except when that innocent man is executed.”

    Which is why every death penalty case is granted an automatic appeal, a process that take years — or, not unusually, decades — giving anyone plenty of time to do the research and speak up. Plenty of groups and individuals are out there doing this right now.

    As far as New York’s death penalty process, the opposition to the death penalty from local and state politicians, plus the relatively few number of capital cases, plus the politically left-wing bent of the state in general, makes this less than a slam-dunk case against capital punishment. See this interesting article.

    I need to get back to work, so I’m afraid I’ll have to bow out here. Please feel free to have the last word.

  43. Tim, according to your link the U.S. is indeed WAY behind western Europe, with murder rates 2-4 times higher than western European nations.

  44. Why is everyone so convinced that the death penalty doesn’t deter?

    I don’t know enough to answer the question point blank, but it seems like there’s good evidence for death penalty deterrence–


    If I understand you, you’re saying that the murder rates are higher in the United States than in Britain, but the United States has the death penalty, and therefore the death penalty has no deterrent effect?

  45. Mike: Thanks for your thoughts. I have a lot of things to say about the death penalty, but I was trying to stay focused on efficiency in my comments here. I also know the New York case intimately, as I worked for the State when the first death sentences were working their way through the system. What that showed to me, and what everything I have read since has reinforced, is that even assuming capital punishment is morally permissible, and even assuming that we only execute an innocent person is less than 1% of cases (and that this is also morally permissible), the death penalty as currently administered in the U.S. is grossly inefficient, and any attempt to make it more efficient only increases the possibility of innocent people being sentenced to death.

    You cannot have a death penalty system that is effective and efficient as long as human beings are both fallible and opposed to executing innocents. Apparently everyone but us, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia has figured that out.

  46. Ronan,

    Baltimore City doesn’t have the death penalty as deterent; it’s prosecutors never seek it. None of Maryland’s dozen or so murderers awaiting execution were convicted in Baltimore City. Correlate that with over half of Maryland’s murders being committed in Baltimore City, which has a ninth of its population. One of two executions a year in a state with over five hundred murders hints, though, that the death penalty is a little side show irrelevant to homicidal crime in Maryland.

    The FBI gives Baltimore City’s 2004 murder rate as 43.5/100,000. For Maryland overall it was 9.4/100,000. For Maryland without Baltimore the rate was 5.0/100,000, similar to the total U.S. rate of 5.5/100,000. The Home Office reports the rate for England and Wales for 2003/2004 was 1.6/100,000.

  47. The second and third highest murder rates among U.S cities are Washington D.C. and Detroit respectively. The Dist. of Col. nor the state of Michigan have the Death Penalty.

  48. Greg Call,

    I’m interested in your definition of ‘inefficient’? What level of expense would, in your mind, make the process ‘efficient’? More to the point, at what level do you think the expense of the process would no longer justify abolishing the death penalty?

    US soldiers typically expend massive amounts of ammunition for every kill. One could call this ‘inefficient’ or even ‘grossly inefficient’ but to my knowledge no one has suggested that the soldiers stop shooting. This is because discussions of efficiency tell you nothing unless you are able to put a value on the outcome and a vlue on alternative uses of the resources. Since you put a value of 0, or even a negative value, on the execution of murderers, your conclusion that the death penalty is ‘grossly inefficient’ tells us nothing.

  49. Are you in a better position to evaluate these studies than I am, Greg Call? If not, why the counterintuitive certainty we’ve seen in this thread that the death penalty has no deterrent effect?

  50. Greg: Of course, you forget to mention that the poster child of the innocent man on death row in IL was subsequently re-arrested because he did in fact commit an unsolved murder and the same DNA which freed him from charge 1 led to charge 2.

    Personally, I would like to oppose the death penalty because it feels inconsistent, at times, with a culture of life philosophy. However, much more prevalent and persuasive is thus:

    You abuse something, you lose it. Maybe you can repent of murder and the murderer gets more time to work out his salvation in fear and trembling; however, the murdered one never does. Satan sought to take away our agency & potential for exaltation; his price was to lose his. A murderer is committing the exact same act: taking away the agency of another (although this lacks the capacity to stop the killed’s potential for exaltation). It is “like unto” “THE” original sin of agency stealing. Death is the kindest remedy for such.

  51. Adam: Good questions. As hinted at above, I think that if the death penalty cost the same as, or less than, life without parole, then I would have no objection to the death penalty on fiscal efficiency grounds.

    I will grant you that if you think that the moral proposition, “Murderers must die,” is one that should be adhered to and funded by the state no matter the cost or accompanying waste, then my efficiency argument is largely irrelevant. That is why I asked Mike above: “Would you want your State to continue to have the death penalty no matter its marginal cost over life imprisonment?” I am working on the assumption that most people will answer that question in the negative, and so it is worth talking about the efficiency of the system as currently administered. Abstract arguments about morality and justice typically go nowhere.

  52. Who cares what you believe? How about we ask Tookie Williams what he originally believed?
    Tookie Williams believed in the death penalty. At least he did when he killed those people.

  53. Adam comment #54: Certainly not. But I think (and other observers seem to agree) that there is a general consensus that the statistics fail to establish general deterrence. That is why Sunstein’s paper received a lot of attention — it relied on studies that appears to contradict this seeming consensus.

  54. “I will grant you that if you think that the moral proposition, “Murderers must die,â€? is one that should be adhered to and funded by the state no matter the cost or accompanying waste, then my efficiency argument is largely irrelevant.”

    I think its largely irrelevant anyway. Even if people don’t put an absolute value on the death penalty, you still can’t decide whether our system is inefficient unless you know what value they do put on it. Your idea that the system is efficient only if it costs the same as life-without-parole makes sense only if you value the death penalty about the same as you value life-without-parole. But most people don’t. (and, in any case, I’m convinced that the costs of life-without-parole will go up if the death penalty is abolished, especially the litigation costs).

  55. I really shouldn’t get involved in this discussion but…

    One of my close relatives was murdered by Ted Bubdy. Know what her brother did with his life? His goal was to be incarcerated in the Florida pen so he had a chance to kill Bundy with his own bare hands, if the State didn’t ever manage to get around to it first. And he wouldn’t have been nice about it.

    What about the outrage that the families of the vitims feel? If someone got one of my kids I don’t know if I could control myself. I think the best argument for the death penalty is that the State will kill these monsters more mercifully than the relatives of their victims will. It may not make any sense to those with such a finely tuned moral system as the typical blogger here, but having the guy who killed your daughter executed can help with the healing process. Not the celestial kingdom, I know but the real world.

    It has been 31 years since her brutal murder and she is still dead and she never got to go to BYU or get married or raise children or do her visiting teaching every month. Because her bones are still rotting somewhere up in the mountains overlooking the 10 beautiful temples in Utah and her innocent blood cries to the Lord for vengence. And for her familty it still hurts like hell. Sorry folks for that bit of venom but I am sick and tired of the way certain aspects of our culture and faith cottles these kind of criminals.

  56. Adam G.: “Even if people don’t put an absolute value on the death penalty, you still can’t decide whether our system is inefficient unless you know what value they do put on it.”

    I’m not sure that anyone can put an exact value on the relevant options. But a New York taxpayer can generally answer whether they think they have gotten good value for the $100 million the State has spent to not execute anyone. California does execute a few people per year, and spends $90 million to do so. Since 1976, the US has executed 1003 (mostly poor Southern) persons — and exonerated about 100 on death row — at a cost of about $2 billion dollars (it used to be a lot cheaper). Is it worth it $2 million of taxpayer money to execute a particular person rather than put them behind bars for life? Not to me, but reasonable people can obviously disagree. And I do think that most people find it at least relevant to the issue of whether we should support or oppose the death penalty.

  57. Adam, John M., and Tim J.,

    I just want to know what you make of the fact that England, say, which is roughly comparable to the US in socio-economic terms, has 5 times LESS murders per 1000 (according to John’s data). Why is the murder rate so low in England? We don’t hang people any more, so it’s not due to any death penalty deterrent. Why is that different in America?

  58. Ronan,

    your death rate was lower back when you still had the death penalty, right? I mean, if you’re arguing straight out that the lower murder rate in the UK proves that the death penalty has no deterrent effect, go ahead and do it. There’s lots of ways of refuting that argument.

    But if you’re asking why the United States has historically had a more violent culture than the UK, well, I can only speculate. Why do you think the US has historicaly been more violent?

  59. Hey, that’s enough third party observations from me. You tell ME why it’s higher in America! IMHO, the death penalty is not a crime reducer. One can talk of justice, sure, but I don’t think the deterrence argument holds up. Just my two pennies’ worth.

  60. Your HO is duly noted. It does not persuade me, as it appears to be based solely on (1) that simple faith which the poets tell us is better than Norman blood and (2) the different murder rates between England and the US. I just don’t get why this difference is important to your conclusion. You’re saying that the death penalty causes the murder rate to quadruple? Really?

    Is England’s current murder rate now a quarter of what it was when England had the death penalty? Did England and the United States have comparable murder rates when both had the death penalty? Did the murder rate drop in the United States post 1950s when the death penalty became much rarer and postponed?

  61. Adam:
    You’re saying that the death penalty causes the murder rate to quadruple? Really?

    No. Not at all. Just that it doesn’t make a fat lot of difference. Again, IMHO.

  62. Actually, let me modify that. It may make a bit of a difference, but not a big fat one. What’s the goal here? If talion, then justice is indeed served (kind of) through the death penalty. But if it’s the reduction of the murder rate and the improvement of civil society, then let me respectfully suggest that there are better and cheaper ways to do that. In Canadian inner cities they are not killing each other. Why is that? And why aren’t many Americans asking that question. “Fry the bastard,” sounds awfully just, but it ain’t doing America much good. IM…H…O.

  63. Ronan,

    Is’nt the British crime rate rocketing quite rapidly now? its what I have read. I have also read that Britian abolished the death penalty after hanging an innocent man back in the 50’s or 60’s

  64. Ronan,

    You keep saying that your no-deterrence idea is backed by nothing but your own opinion, and then you keep bringing up frivolous examples. America is not Canada. America is not England. America has always been more violent. You seem to think that all three countries had comparable murder rates until one day England and Canada switched from the death penalty to midnight basketball, but THIS IS NOT THE CASE.

    Anyway, what if you were right that England and Canada have implemented social programs that effectively reduce the death rate–this would only work as an argument against the death penalty as a deterrent if we assumed those programs were incompatible with the death penalty.

  65. This article shows that, while depending on one’s preconceived notions, on can argue (with the same evidence) for or against the penalty as a deterrent, such arguments usually ignore many other factors whose influence is not easily accounted for:

    Previous centuries were far more violent, when capital punishment coexisted with duels, blood feuds, honor killings and random cruelties:

    The debate on capital punishment is a part of the continuing process of the civilization of the world. Several decades from now we will look back on current attitudes with the same surprise and dismay that we now have for the more embarrassing and primitive opinions of quite recent generations.

  66. “Several decades from now we will look back on current attitudes with the same surprise and dismay that we now have for the more embarrassing and primitive opinions of quite recent generations. ”

    I would like to think you are right, Bill, but I have no confidence in that.

  67. Adam Greenwood,

    If deterrence is the only saving grace for the death penalty, don’t you think we should implement it more like China, Iran, or other Islamic countries? All this “due process” really takes away the deterrent effect capital punishment could have. Deterrence really relies on swift and certain punishment. Perhaps we should return to quicker and more painful execution protocols. That would seem to increase the deterrent effect. What about the return to public executions? Now they can be televised live. In fact, in keeping with good old American capitalism, they could even be pay for view.

  68. The death penalty has a significant deterrent effect (one could say almost total– without risk of hyperbole) on murders committed by people after they have been executed.

  69. Is there any interest in turning this discussion more towards the bloggers views on the death penalty as shaped by their personal beliefs AND/OR interpretation of Mormon doctrine or teachings?

  70. As practiced in Maryland and elsewhere in the U.S. presently, I don’t think execution is a significant crime deterrent. Again, given that Maryland only has a dozen people sentenced to die (over several years) in a state that experiences over five hundred homicides every year, I don’t see how it could be. However, with the overwhelming murder rate in Baltimore City compared to the rest of the state and the lack of a death penalty in the city, I suspect a connection in attitudes and desires between that city and her murderers. When it comes to taking a stand with the murderers or the murdered, the murderers are Baltimore’s favored sons and her dead are sacrificed to the public order. This applies not just to execution, but to every step of criminal justice in Baltimore.

    The visceral reaction Ronan Head described in his Headlife post is something I appreciate. The execution patterns in the U.S. and England were similar until forty years ago. If the U.S. had followed England’s pattern, I might have similarly recoiled when presented with a killing performed in my name, on my behalf. It was a similar visceral reaction that led me to write the short essay I left on Ronan’s web site. I was presented with the brutal slaying of a friend, an old woman, and for a couple of days I could think of nothing else. I felt guilt that my society could fail one of its members so completely. I needed to repudiate that act, to declare that I didn’t accept it, that it was done against my will, not with my complicity or acquiescence.

    For me, that is what execution represents. Not retaliation, but repudiation. Imprisonment is insufficient for such a purpose; that’s just the rest of us trying to keep a dangerous person from hurting us too. Exile would serve my purpose. To set a Cain-like mark on the murderer and cast him from our borders without passport would do, but that doesn’t seem feasible for such a large society.

  71. Ronan,

    The reason is GUNS. We have lots and lots and lots of guns. Honestly, if every guy who robbed a convenient store didnt have a gun, well….there’d be a lot less murders. Banning guns = reduced crime.

    thats my 2 cents…

  72. But, Veritas . . .Americans have an inalienable right to to own any type of firearm ever invented see The Second Amendment. You are probably right that few guns would mean fewer murders. While banning guns in the U.S. would not likely ever be a reality . . . I see no reason why they shouldn’t be registered and licensed just like cars and drivers.

  73. Both Britian and Aus saw a serious increase in crime since they tightened up Gun laws. what make y’all of that

  74. One thing that I think clearly shows the death penalty is a bad idea, is the crowds that are drawn each time to support us killing in vengeance, to cheer at the stroke of the hour, and wave their ghoulish signs in glee. Putting any living thing to death should be an occasion for sorrow and not for vicious delight. Whenever I see those crowds, I feel that we’re doing a very bad thing by sanctioning the state killing people. Like most sins, it seems to harm those who carry it out (society) more even than those upon whom it falls (the convicts), speaking in an eternal sense. The convicts are given a sort of dignity and martyrdom this way, and the cheering crowds are befouled.

  75. I have never posted but have been dropping in on T&S for sometime and really enjoy reading the posts. I live in California and my background is in law enforcement and teaching.

    I am for the death penalty philosophically, but share the concern with others about courtroom mistakes putting someone on death row that may not have committed the crime. I choose not to use the phrase “an innocent person� because it is my opinion the majority of those on death row have committed other grievous crimes that were not discovered or prosecutors lacked evidence to charge them with.

    While I wonder about the judicial process in other states, I am comfortable with the process in California. The endless appeals process takes at least 20 years to exhaust. We have an execution coming up in about 6 weeks where the immediate victims have all died of old age. The only one left from the original trial is the suspect which is asking for clemency based on his age – claiming he is too old to be executed. He is also a minority (American Indian) so I’m sure there may be a lot of press on this.

    In the Stanley Williams case, I am very comfortable with him receiving the death penalty. The media reporting on this killer has been very biased and turned him into something of a folk hero – equating him with the likes of Rosa Parks. The use of his middle name from child hood (Tookie) has been used to humanize him. His Nobel peace prize nomination is mentioned during the first paragraph of nearly every article I have read (and with his execution they will now probably award it to him). A Southern California radio host showed what a joke a Nobel peace prize nomination is when he managed to get himself nominated in one afternoon.

    I have heard a lot about the fact several fingerprints were found at the scene but none were his. What a surprise – a 7-11 and a public motel (the murder scenes) had several fingerprints. It does not surprise me that Williams’ fingerprints were not at the scene – you don’t need to touch anything (outside of the gun) to shoot someone. Or he could have worn gloves. The evidence at the scene was tied to Mr. Williams’ shotgun which was found in his possession. After the killings he bragged about it to several people, laughing as he recounted the specifics. His conviction was upheld by the 9th circuit court of appeals based in San Francisco – the most liberal court in the country and the quickest to overturn a conviction.

    As far as being reformed – it does not matter if he was or not (and I suspect it was an act). A truly reformed person would denounce the killers that were his friends in gang life. Instead he dedicated one of his books to a notorious murderer and refused to give authorities any gang intelligence. It has been reported that his books have kept thousands out of gangs – yet the total number of his child books sold is less than 400 (and none of those were available in the LA county schools libraries).

    Regarding specific posts on this thread.

    On having the death penalty – I think we should keep it. (Someone mentioned the 90 million price tag for appeals – it’s actually closer to 50 million.) If a murderer is charged and has information the prosecuter wants (other criminals, body location, etc…) the very threat of a death penalty charge makes many start talking.

    Is it a deterrent? I don’t know and I really don’t care. I just know if my relative were killed I would want the person that did it to receive the same fate.

    The other problem is the system itself – life without parole doesn’t always mean life without parole. Had Stanley Williams received clemency his next step would have been parole based on his so-called good works. In time he probably would have tasted freedom again, and that would be a slap in the face to the people he killed and their familes.

    On fewer guns=less crime… this is not true in America. John Lott Jr’s books list several studies that back this. Some might argue statistics can be used either way, but even the anecdotal evidence would back this up. Those cities with the toughest gun laws (such as Washington DC, New York, Los Angeles) have the highest firearm murder rates. Why? Criminals don’t follow the laws. They don’t go to the local gun shop, register and buy a gun. They wait until it closes and steal them, or buy one from the local smuggler. If I’m a bad guy I’d much rather burglarize a house where the citizens are discouraged from owning guns.

    I live in a community that is very conservative and gun ownership is very high. Everyone knows this, and I believe that is the reason I can count the number of home burglaries I responded to over a decade on one hand. One of those was an attempted burglary where the owner confronted the intruder and kept him at gunpoint until I arrived. You will never read about incidents like this in the media, you only hear about the irresponsible gun owner that leaves a firearm within reach of a child.

    Ronan asks (#62) why America has a higher murder rate than England. I have a theory. While I believe environment has a great deal to do with how we turn out as adults, I believe genetics also play a large role. This country was founded by many people with independent and rebellious spirits. We are not a regal and proper people – we tend to see what we want and go after it without a lot of thought of consequence. If a magic wand could remove all the guns from America I have no doubt that we would just kill each other with sticks until we could get our hands on more guns.

  76. Veritas,

    They enacted new, tougher gun-control laws in Austrailia and violent crime (including murder) went through the roof.

    Banning guns = More violent crime

  77. For a long time I’ve felt like capital punishment actually recognized the gravity of the crime. One would like to believe that punishments are designed to fit the crime, hence, I paid $50 for speeding, but someone driving in the HOV lanes and slowing down my personal commute (a heinous crime indeed) gets fined up to $1,000.

    With premeditated, intentional murder, it seems to me that there simply is no other punishment that equates to the crime. To fail to execute the person seems to be saying that somehow the life of the victim is not up to snuff, is not really as valuable. Capital punishment is a way of holding perpetrators responsible in an equal fashion. If I say we should lock up convicted murderers for life, am I not saying that somehow, their life is worth more than the one they took?

    That for me, is what it’s about, not deterrance and not saving money on court costs. It’s about recognizing the value of human life and about accountability and responsibility.

  78. Jesse: As currently administered in the U.S., only a tiny fraction of all premeditated, intentional murders result in a death sentence. And of those that result in a death sentence, only about 1 in 5 result in an execution. So, using your rationale, the system as a whole really only recognizes the value of a tiny fraction of murder victims, mostly in Texas, Virginia, and few other southern States. Is a white victim of a serial killer more valuable than the black victim of an isolated driveby? If not, then our system certainly isn’t sending the right message, because the former is many, many more times likely to result in a death sentence than the latter.

  79. Greg has still not provided an answer for the subset of those that are innocent of the crime charged; but guilty of yet another; as shown in the recent case in IL where DNA cleared the man of murder A and linked him to murder B.

    Nor has any explanation been given of how our society can tolerate individuals who would take away God’s gift of life. The maxim is if you break it, you must fix it. Killers can’t fix the loss of life caused. Celebrate life. Kill murderers.

  80. Hi Lyle: I didn’t answer because I thought it was a utterly silly question. Are you suggesting that it is okay to execute someone for a crime they did not commit because they may have committed another crime that is worthy of death?

    I don’t think our society is showing “tolerance” to killers by locking them up for the rest of their life. And I’m surprised by your last two declaratives because just a few comments up you said, “[P]ersonally, I would like to oppose the death penalty because it feels inconsistent, at times, with a culture of life philosophy.”

  81. Greg: Consider it silly if you will, but a significant portion of the electorate certainly doesn’t seem to think so; and my comment wasn’t the only one to allude to it.

    My last declaration comes from intense struggling with the “seeming” inconsistency of the death penalty and a culture of life. That is my synthesis; I know think it is a false inconsistency and perfectly compatible. Granted, this is an emerging position.

  82. One thing that I don’t think has been mentioned in this thread — those convictions for which there is the most evidence of guilt are usually plea bargained down to life sentences anyway. If the case against a murderer is close to a slam dunk, the defendant has a strong incentive to plead guilty and the state will usually allow the defendant to so plead in order to avoid spending the vast amounts of resources discussed by Greg simply to get a conviction + death (there are obviously exceptions to this, but the exceptions almost prove the rule). On the other hand, where the evidence against a defendant is weaker, the defendant is more likely to risk going to trial, even where the prosecution has indicated that it will seek the death penalty. (Caveat: I don’t have any statistics on this, but it is my general understanding. Can anyone confirm?)

    This is a curious result, and one that has bothered me despite the fact that, in the abstract, I support capital punishment. We have a system that executes only those defendants against whom the case for guilt is not so strong, and allows those for whom guilt is more certain to live.

    Obviously this could be fixed by prosecuting those defendants that are clearly guilty, but this would seem to me largely a waste of resources unless we can bring down the costs discussed by Greg. Even if we could reduce those costs significantly, I don’t think it would make sense to start seeking death for those who are willing to plead guilty (again, I can think of exceptions to this but . . .). The cost of a guilty plea is close to zero on the scale. And while I generally support capital punishment, I don’t value the difference between life in prison and execution at anywhere near $100 million.

  83. The point Todd Lundell makes is a problem for criminal justice at all levels. It seems like a violation of the fifth amendment right that no person shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself. Apparently compulsion means something more in this setting than promising to come down harder on a person who presents a defense against the state and declines to plead his guilt.

  84. I believe those are generalizations that do not stand up to rigorous analysis. Quite often the prosecutors will agree to a plea bargain when the case is not so strong, and will not agree when the case is a slam dunk, and the evidence is compelling, or when the crime has been particularly heinous.

  85. Todd and John: This is a complex area of law, and the states have different approaches. But I do know that, before striking down the death penalty statute in its entirety on other grounds, the NY Court of Appeals struck down provisions of the statute that permitted a guilty plea (to murder one) to be obtained while a notice of intent to seek the death penalty is in effect. Thus, once the state files the requisite notice of intent to seek the death penalty, they cannot offer a plea on murder one, but only a lesser offense. A murder one plea deal can only be struck before a notice is filed, or after it is withdrawn (and once withdrawn, the notice cannot be reinstituted).

  86. Greg, even in NY, don’ t you think there is plenty of discussion with the defense about the possibility of filing a notice of intent long before it is actually filed? And once filed, surely there is plenty of discussion regarding the possibility of withdrawing. Or are even informal discussions about such plea bargains off limits? If not, because both defense counsel and prosecutors are often repeat players in this arena, it seems likely to me that informal “agreements” would be honored.

    I am sure there are 100 nuances that I am missing, but it is still something that must be weighed when determining whether and under what circumstances we ought to allow the death penalty (even assuming it is morally justified in response to some crimes).

  87. Todd: I absolutely agree that the spectre of a death sentence impacts the plea bargaining, despite the courts’ best efforts. I don’t think that it is avoidable unless we jettison the requirement that death is only imposed on a jury verdict (as some states do), or severely limited the state’s ability to cut deals, which courts are reluctant to do.

  88. Because of the recent execution of Williams, I started reading a book I purchased, “Who Owns Death?” by Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell. I highly recommend it.

  89. Another book highly recommended, “Killing Time” by Dave Lindorff on the amazing case of Mumia Abu Jamal and his death sentence in Philadelphia.

  90. Am I the only one who thinks offering a lighter sentence in return for turning state’s witness is the same thing as bribing a witness and should be illegal?

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