The death penalty saves lives

The death penalty saves lives
Image: Grabien video screen grab

Many researchers have concluded that the death penalty saves lives by deterring murder more effectively than mere imprisonment. As the Associated Press noted in 2007, “Each execution deters an average of 18 murders, according to a 2003 nationwide study by professors at Emory University. (Other studies have estimated the deterred murders per execution at three, five and 14).” Additional studies are described by David Mulhausen of the Heritage Foundation at this link. For example, he notes that “two studies by Paul R. Zimmerman, a Federal Communications Commission economist, also support the deterrent effect of capital punishment…. [E]ach additional execution, on average, results in 14 fewer murders.”

But deterrence is not the only way the death penalty saves innocent life. It also prevents individual murderers from every being able to commit more murders and crimes while in prison. An August 28 Washington Post article provides a concrete example. It’s about serial killer Darren Witmer, who “killed two senior citizens, got locked up, and tried to extort money from a third”:

Alone in his prison cell, Darren Witmer pulled out a piece of paper and tried a new way to steal someone’s money.

“May this letter reach your hands with a welcoming comfort,” he wrote last year to a 75-year-old woman living by herself north of Washington.

Witmer, 45, figured he had nothing to lose.

He was serving three life sentences in Maryland for killing three people. In 1994, Witmer broke into the Frederick, Md., apartment of an 83-year-old veteran and beat him to death for $300. Days later, he forced a 78-year-old man in the same town to write a check for $1,000 before he killed him with a small ice chipper. In prison, Witmer strangled his cellmate.

Now, writing his letter — to a stranger whose address he’d swiped from his dead cellmate’s records — Witmer got to his point.

He had “people in position” ready to slip into the woman’s home, carry her to the trunk of a car, take her to a river and kill her. “Trust me,” Witmer wrote, “you won’t even see it coming.”

But for $700 sent to his prison account, Witmer said, she could avoid death.

The woman called the police. Officers paid Witmer a visit. He was charged with extortion. And in a Rockville courtroom Friday, six years were added atop his life sentences.

These crimes are due to the lack of an effective death penalty. If Witmer had been executed for his first two murders, rather than sentenced to life, he could not have “strangled his cellmate.” He paid no real penalty for strangling his cellmate, since he was already serving a life sentence for killing two other people, so the life sentence he got for killing his cellmate added nothing to his existing life sentence.  And since he is already serving a life sentence, he had “nothing to lose” in seeking to extort money from his elderly victim.

As Ernest van den Haag notes in “Capitol Punishment Saves Innocent Lives,” merely sentencing murderers to prison does not prevent them from killing again, since “incarcerated murderers can escape, be released on furlough, or kill other prisoners or prison staff.”

Maryland, where Witmer committed his crimes, has formally abolished the death penalty, and even before it did so, it had virtually ceased to exist due to hostility from the state’s liberal political and legal elites.

If Hillary Clinton is elected, the death penalty will be effectively abolished (and perhaps formally abolished as well). The 2016 Democratic Platform calls for the abolition of the death penalty, and the four liberal Supreme Court justices already vote to overturn virtually all death sentences (most murderers do not receive the death penalty, which is reserved for the worst of the worst murderers. As NPR notes, only a tiny fraction of murderers get executed.). Clinton only needs to name one additional liberal justice to the court to effectively abolish the death penalty. The justices have already abolished mandatory life without parole for 16-18 year old murderers, even those who torture their victims to death. Hillary Clinton made baseless claims of “systemic” racism against America’s police in multiple speeches, suggesting that racism is the norm among America’s police officers, when it in fact is not.

By contrast, Donald Trump is running on a law and order platform, and has defended the police against inaccurate, sweeping, broad-brush accusations of  racism. Trump’s list of potential Supreme Court picks consists of experienced, well-respected appellate judges who support free speech and property rights, and who are highly-rated by Libertarian and conservative legal scholars. Since Trump has always been passionately anti-crime, even many years ago, he is likely to nominate anti-crime judges. Anti-crime judges tend to be more conservative than judges who are soft on crime, so Trump is more likely to nominate conservative judges than Hillary Clinton, just due to his stance on crime. (Anti-crime judges are also less likely to engage in left-wing judicial activism, less likely to permit abusive lawsuits, and more supportive of free speech, property rights, and freedom of association, than judges who are soft on crime.).

One common argument against the death penalty is that it supposedly is racist (because the percentage of people executed who are black is higher than the percentage of the population that is black). But it is not racist, and the percentage executed who are black just reflects the undisputed fact that murders are disproportionately committed by blacks, especially murders with aggravated circumstances. For example, more than half of all murders are committed by blacks, who are just 13% of the population. (See FBI, “2014 Uniform Crime Reports: Crime in the United States,” Table 43A, Arrests by Race, 2014.) The death penalty is not imposed on most murders, even in states where the death penalty has not been abolished, but rather is generally reserved for the worst of the worst premeditated murders. As John Lott noted in the National Review in May 2014,

Over the period from 1977 to 2011, the rate of aggravating circumstances for murders was higher for black defendants for murder than it was for whites. Yet, despite that and with whites accounting for fewer murders than blacks (whites commit about 46.8 percent of all murders committed by whites and blacks), whites account for 57 percent of the white and black prisoners sentenced to death for murder.

A September 2 New York Times story notes that courts in rural, predominantly-white areas tend to impose harsher sentences than courts in urban, heavily-minority areas.

It is true that blacks have a higher arrest rate than whites. For example, 43.7% of all rapists in state prisons were black, according to a 1997 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, even though blacks are only 13% of the general population. (See Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Sex Offenses and Offenders (Feb. 1997) (NCJ-163392)). But that merely reflects a higher black crime rate, as reported by black crime victims (crime victims are commonly of the same race as their attacker). As City Journal has noted, “the race of criminals reported by crime victims matches arrest data. As long ago as 1978, a study of robbery and aggravated assault in eight cities found parity between the race of assailants in victim identifications and in arrests—a finding replicated many times since, across a range of crimes. No one has ever come up with a plausible argument as to why crime victims would be biased in their reports.”

Jerome Woehrle

Jerome Woehrle

Jerome Woehrle is a retired attorney and author, who writes about politics.


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