It is the premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state. This cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment is done in the name of justice. It violates the right to life as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception regardless of the nature of the crime, the characteristics of the offender, or the method used by the state to kill the prisoner. (Abolish the death penalty, 2008, p. 2).
Despite these increasingly vocal protestations from at home and abroad, a majority of the states in America continue to retain the death penalty as a lawful punishment for capital offenses today. While the trend toward abolishing capital punishment was apparent in recent years, it would seem reasonable to assert that the death penalty will continue to be practiced in the United States for the foreseeable future and its effectiveness as a deterrent remains a relevant and timely issue for study.
Review of the Relevant Literature
The deterrent aspects of capital punishment are well established in the historical record As Plato noted early on in Protagoras, "Punishment is not inflicted by a rational man for the sake of the crime that has been committed -- after all one cannot undo what is past -- but for the sake of the future, to prevent either the same man or, by the spectacle of his punishment, someone else, from doing wrong again" (quoted in Stolzenberg & D'Alessio at p. 351). According to Fattah (1981), "Discussions around the deterrent effect of capital punishment usually center on a wrong question. The question to be asked is not whether the death penalty deters would-be murderers, but whether it deters them more than the prospect of life imprisonment" (p. 292). The threat of execution vs. life imprisonment, then, is the essence of the debate over the efficacy of capital punishment as a deterrent.
There are some profound constraints involved in the capital punishment as a deterrent analysis, though. In this regard, Steiker (2005) emphasizes that, "We have not been and never will be able to verify the deterrent effect of executions by conducting a 'controlled' scientific experiment, which would randomly assign either execution or some term of years to similarly situated defendants in similarly situated jurisdictions" (p. 751). Such constraints are compounded by a number of other factors as well. Indeed, even the perception of the efficacy of capital punishment as a deterrent largely depends on an individual's views concerning the death penalty, with those in favor of capital punishment viewing studies of deterrence differently than those who are opposed to the practice (Burke, 2006).
Furthermore, an examination of the relationship between homicides and capital punishment rates provides mixed results as well. During the first decade of the 20th century, for instance, execution and homicide rates appeared approximately uncorrelated; during the 1920s, though, the execution rate in the United States significantly declined and the rate of homicides increased (Donohue & Wolfers, 2005). During the subsequent 40-year period, the relationship between capital punishment rates and homicides became more noticeably correlated, with both increasing during the decades of the 1920s and 1930s, but decreasing simultaneously during the 1940s and 1950s (Donohue & Wolfers). According to these authors, "As the death penalty fell into disuse in the 1960s, the homicide rate rose sharply. The death penalty moratorium that began with Furman in 1972 and ended with Gregg [vs. Georgia] in 1976 appears to have been a period in which the homicide rate rose. The homicide rate then remained high and variable through the 1980s while the rate of executions rose" (p. 791). Certainly, it is reasonable to conclude that when criminals are executed, they will not commit any future crimes, but from a deterrence perspective for others, the picture is somewhat different. Therefore, as Fattah points out, "The question is not whether the death penalty has a deterrent effect but whether it provides a unique and supreme deterrent, whether it is the most powerful and most effective of all deterrents" (p. 292). Because the United States remains one of the few countries in the world where capital punishment is practiced, these questions have assumed some new importance and relevance in recent years.
According to Stolzenberg and D'Alessio, though, the results of analyses of the deterrent effect of capital punishment to date have provided mixed results. As these authors emphasize, "Healthy debate persists as to the deterrent effect of capital punishment. Although an expansive and diverse body of research has accumulated that examines the effect of executions or execution publicity on murder rates, this research affords few definitive conclusions. On one hand, there is evidence that executions reduce murder levels. On the other hand, several studies fail to discern convincing evidence of a relationship" (Stolzenberg & D'Alessio p. 351).
Proponents of capital punishment maintain that its deterrent effects are significant and justify the infliction of the "supreme deterrent" (Sunstein & Vermeule, 2005). According to these authors, "A leading national study suggests that each execution prevents some eighteen murders, on average. If the current evidence is even roughly correct, then a refusal to impose capital punishment will effectively condemn numerous innocent people to death" (Sunstein & Vermeule, p. 703-704). Similarly, Donohue and Wolfers (2005) report that the perception of the efficacy of capital punishment as a deterrent was reinforced following an analysis of national time-series data in 1975 that claimed that each execution saved eight lives. Likewise, in their study, "Marginal deterrence and multiple murders," Ekelund, Jackson, Ressler and Tollison (2006) report that, "Study of the deterrent effect of capital punishment has become a staple of the economic literature emphasizing marginal behavior. The preponderance but not the totality of empirical evidence in this ever-growing literature is that higher arrest, sentencing, and execution probabilities -- marginal deterrence -- all lower the murder rate" (p. 521). Critics of the death penalty, though, have cited increasing concerns about capital punishment, including whether it actually a deterrent for other violent crimes, the extent to which it provides closure for the families of victims, as well as whether capital punishment is in reality a type of social revenge, and the extent to which capital punishment as a type of justice can actually increase violent crime (Moore, 2006).
Following their review of capital punishment statistics during the period from the 1920s through the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court's handed down its decision in Furman v. Georgia in June 1972 (Grant, 2004). According to Sigler (2003), "In Furman, the Court effectively abolished the death penalty in the United States, having determined that imposition of the punishment under the challenged state statutes resulted in arbitrary and capricious decision-making" (p. 1151) In the majority's opinion in Furman, Justice William J. Brennan noted that, "When a country of over 200 million people inflicts an unusually severe punishment no more than 50 times a year, the inference is strong that the punishment is not being regularly and fairly applied" (quoted in Grant, 2004 at p. 25). Moreover, the decision in Furman v. Georgia included that finding that because life imprisonment was as effective a deterrent as capital punishment, executions were deemed excessive (Grant). These observations are congruent with other critics of capital punishment. For example, Ferrall (2005) points out that, "Incapacitation and deterrence also fail to provide consistent grounds for the death penalty, both because methods of predicting future dangerousness are not sufficiently reliable to justify execution, and because the data has not unequivocally established the deterrent effect of capital punishment over that of life imprisonment" (p. 365).
The finality of the punishment involved is perhaps the overriding concern because a growing number of condemned capital offense prisoners have subsequently been exonerated through new investigative technique, particularly DNA evidence. In this regard, Steiker and Steiker (2005) report that the growing debate over the efficacy of capital punishment has been focused on this finalty: "Advocates for reform or abolition of capital punishment have seized upon this issue to promote various public policy initiatives to address the crisis, including proposals for more complete DNA collection and testing, procedural reforms in capital cases, substantive limits on the use of capital punishment, suspension of executions, and outright abolition" (p. 587).
Chapter 2: Review of the Relevant Literature
The deterrent aspects of capital punishment are well established in the historical record As Plato noted early on in Protagoras, "Punishment is not inflicted by a rational man for the sake of the crime that has been committed -- after all one cannot undo what is past -- but for the sake of the future, to prevent either the same man or, by the spectacle of his punishment, someone else, from doing wrong again" (quoted in Stolzenberg & D'Alessio at p. 351). According to Fattah (1981), "Discussions around the deterrent effect of capital punishment usually center on…