Death to the death penalty

December 30, 2006 | By | 5 Replies More

According to this article about Saddam’s execution, “Iraq’s death penalty was suspended by the U.S. military after it toppled Saddam in 2003, but the new Iraqi government reinstated it two years later, saying executions would deter criminals.”

Deter criminals?  Since Iraq reinstated the death penalty in 2005, the murder rate in Baghdad has risen so high that the violence has been called a civil war.  Exactly who has the death penalty deterred from committing crimes?


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About the Author ()

Grumpypilgrim is a writer and management consultant living in Madison, WI. He has several scientific degrees, including a recent master’s degree from MIT. He has also held several professional career positions, none of which has been in a field in which he ever took a university course. Grumps is an avid cyclist and, for many years now, has traveled more annual miles by bicycle than by car…and he wishes more people (for the health of both themselves and our planet) would do the same. Grumps is an enthusiastic advocate of life-long learning, healthy living and political awareness. He is single, and provides a loving home for abused and abandoned bicycles. Grumpy’s email: grumpypilgrim(AT)@gmail(DOT).com [Erich’s note: Grumpy asked that his email be encrypted this way to deter spam. If you want to write to him, drop out the parentheticals in the above address].

Comments (5)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Our administration is doubtless hoping that Saddam's hanging will get us all happy and giggly, the way we get when we blow up firecrackers on the Fourth of July. All I can think of is the enormous sums we've paid (in money and blood) for this moment of sport and entertainment.

    I don't mourn the bastard. But here in late 2006, Saddam's hanging certainly isn't improving the world in any meaningful way.

  2. Dudley Sharp says:

    The Death Penalty as a Deterrent – Eight Recent Studies – Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters, updated 1706

    "The results are boldly clear: executions deter murders and murder rates increase substantially during moratoriums."

    (2003) Emory University Economics Department Chairman Hashem Dezhbakhsh et al.  Each execution results, on average, in eighteen fewer murders — with a margin of error of plus or minus 10." (1) Their data base used nationwide data from 3,054 US counties from 1977-1996.

    (2003) University of Colorado (Denver) Economics Department Chairman Naci Mocan et al.  Each additional execution reduces homicides by 5 to 6, and three additional pardons (commutations) generate 1 to 1.5 additional murders." Their "data set contains detailed information on the entire 6,143 death sentences between 1977 and 1997. (2)

    (2001) University of Houston Professors Dale Cloninger and Roberto Marchesini, found that death penalty moratoriums contribute to more homicides. (3)

    (2001) SUNY (Buffalo) Professor Liu finds that legalizing the death penalty not only adds capital punishment as a deterrent but also increases the marginal productivity of other deterrence measures in reducing murder rates. (4)

    (2003) Clemson U. Professor Shepherd  found that each execution results, on average, in five fewer murders. Longer waits on death row reduce the deterrent effect.  (5)  NOTE In a later review of individual state data, Shepherd found that for states executing less than once every 27 months, that there was no effect on murders or murders actually rose.

    (2003) FCC economist Dr. Paul Zimmerman finds: "Specifically, it is estimated that each state execution deters somewhere between 3 and 25 murders per year (14 being the average). (6)

    (2003) Emory University Economics Department Chairman Hashem Dezhbakhsh and Clemson U. Professor Shepherd found that "The results are boldly clear: executions deter murders and murder rates increase substantially during moratoriums." (7)


    (2005)  In a review of Illinois state data, University of Houston Professors Dale Cloninger and Roberto Marchesini found that 150 additional Illinois' citizens died, in a four year period because of Governor Ryan suspended executions and commuted all death sentences. (Applied Economics, forthcoming 2006).


    The findings reflect reason, common sense and history.

    "According to the standard economic model of crime, a rational offender would respond to perceived costs and benefits of committing crime."  "Capital punishment is particularly significant in this context, because it represents a very high cost for committing murder (loss of life).  Thus, the presence of capital punishment in a state, or the frequency with which it is used, should unequivocally deter homicide." Furthermore, "an increase in pardons (commutations) implies a decrease in the probability of execution, which economic theory predicts should have a positive (increase) impact on murder rates." (8)

    Pubic policy makers take note.  Stopping executions will sacrifice innocent lives.  Reinstating capital punishment will spare more innocent lives. THE DETERRENT EFFECT OF THE DEATH PENALTY, by Dudley Sharp

    ". . . (E)ach execution results, on average, in eighteen fewer murders . . . ".


    The potential for negative consequences deters some behavior.  The most severe criminal sanction — execution — does not contradict that finding. Reason, common sense, history and the weight of the studies support the deterrent effect of the death penalty.  The death penalty protects innocent lives. The absence of the death penalty sacrifices innocent lives.

    Is there any group, be they criminologists, historians, psychologists, economists, philosophers, physicians, journalists or criminals that does not recognize that the prospect of negative consequences constrains or deters the behavior of some?  Of course not — not even fiction writers so speculate.  Even irrational people wear seat belts, choose not to smoke and do not rob police stations because of the potential for negative consequences.

    ll. Historical support

    Reason, history and common sense all support that the potential for negative consequences deters or alters behavior. In short, incentives, negative or positive, matter. That is undisputed.

    Numerous, previous studies have also supported a deterrence finding. And the studies that find a deterrent effect of other criminal sanctions give additional support to the deterrent effect of the death penalty, because, if lesser sanctions deter, then we know that more severe sanctions also deter. The studies that find a deterrent effect of 1. increased police presence, or any other levels of security; 2. arrest/arrest rates; 3. criminal sentencing/incarceration terms; and 4. the presence of rules, laws and statutes all provide additional, collateral support for the deterrent effect of the death penalty. And there are likely hundreds, if not thousands, of such studies and examples (database in progress).

    lII.  Negative consequences matter

    Many have discounted a deterrent effect because of the irrationality of potential and active criminals.  However, both reason and the evidence support that the potential for negative consequences does affect criminal behavior.

    Criminals who try to conceal their crime do so for only one reason — fear of punishment.  Likely, more than 99% of all criminals, including capital murderers, act in such a fashion.  Fear of capture does not exist without an expectation of punishment.

    IV.  The pre trial, trial and death row evidence –  the survival effect

    At every level of the criminal justice process, virtually all criminals do everything they can to lessen possible punishments.  I estimate that less than 1% of all convicted capital murderers request a death sentence in the punishment phase of their trial.  The apprehended criminals' desire for lesser punishments is overwhelming and unchallenged.

    Of the 7300 inmates sentenced to death since 1973, 85, or 1.2% have waived remaining appeals and been executed. 98.8% have not waived appeals. . . . The evidence for the survival effect in pretrial, trial and appeals is overwhelming and that weighs in favor of execution as a deterrent and as an enhanced deterrent over lesser sentences.

    V.  If unsure about deterrence

    Common sense, reason and history all support that the potential for negative consequences restricts the behavior of some.  But, if unsure of deterrence, we face the following dilemma — If executions do deter, halting executions causes more innocents to be murdered and gives those living murderers the opportunity to harm and murder again.  If the death penalty does not deter, and we do execute, we punish murderers as the jury deemed appropriate and we prevent those executed murderers from harming or murdering again.

    Vl.  The individual deterrent effect

    The individual deterrent effect is represented by those who state that they were deterred from committing a murder only because of the prospects of a death sentence. Individual cases support the enhanced deterrent effect. (11)

    One Iowa prisoner, who escaped from a transportation van, with a number of other prisoners, stated that he made sure that the overpowered guards were not harmed, because of his fear of the death penalty in Texas.  The prisoners were being transported through Texas, on their way to New Mexico, when the escape occurred.  Most compelling is that he was a twice convicted murderer from a non death penalty state, Iowa. In addition, he was under the false impression that Texas had the death penalty for rape and, as a result, also protected the woman guard from assault. (12)

    New York Law School Professor Robert Blecker recorded his interview with a convicted murderer. The murderer robbed and killed drug dealers in Washington DC., where he was conscious that there was no death penalty.  He specifically did not murder a drug dealer in Virginia because, and only because, he envisioned himself strapped in the electric chair, which he had personally seen many times while imprisoned in Virginia. (13)

    Senator Dianne Feinstein explained, ''I remember well in the 1960s when I was sentencing a woman convicted of robbery in the first degree and I remember looking at her commitment sheet and I saw that she carried a weapon that was unloaded into a grocery store robbery.  I asked her the question: ‘Why was your gun unloaded?’ She said to me: ‘So I would not panic, kill somebody, and get the death penalty.’ That was firsthand testimony directly to me that the death penalty in place in California in the sixties was in fact a deterrent.''(13A)

    VlI.  Conflicting studies

    In reviewing 30 years of deterrence studies, the strongest statement one may make against deterrence is that there is conflicting data (14).

    Yet, even when academic bias against capital punishment is overt, such as in the case of the American Society of Criminology — the subtitle to their death penalty resources page is "Anti-Capital Punishment Resources" — even they fail to state that the death penalty does not deter some potential murderers, only that "social science research has found no consistent evidence of crime deterrence through execution." (15) That is far from stating that executions do not deter.  And the criminologists are, very likely, that academic group most hostile toward the death penalty. What social science conflicts with the notion that the potential for negative consequences restrains the behavior of some? And most would agree that execution is the most serious negative consequence that a murderer may face.

    VlII.  The brutalization effect of executions

    Some, particularly death penalty opponents, find that the brutalization effect is more likely than the deterrent effect.  The brutalization effect finds that murders will increase because potential murderers will murder because of the example of state executions.

    Why would potential and active murderers be so influenced by the state in such a deep philosophical manner, revealed by brutalization, but they wouldn't be more affected by the simple "you murder, we execute you?"

    Although deterrence is much more than a simple look at only execution rates and murder rates, we do find that as executions have risen dramatically, the murder rate has plunged.

    From 1966-1980, a period which included our last national moratorium on executions (June 1967- January 1976), murders in the United States more than doubled from 11,040 to 23,040. The murder rate also nearly doubled, from 5.6 to 10.2/100,000.  During that 1966-1980 period, the US averaged 1 execution every 3 years, with a maximum of two executions per year.  From 1995-2000 executions averaged 71 per year, a 21,000% increase over the 1966-1980 period.  The US murder rate dropped from a high of 10.2/100,000 in 1980 to 5.5/100,000 in 2000 — a 46% reduction. The US murder rate is now at its lowest level since 1966 (17).

    lX.  The incapacitation effect

    The incapacitation effect states that executed murderers cannot harm or murder again.  Reason dictates that living murderers are infinitely more likely to harm and murder again than are executed murderers.

    That obvious logic escapes death penalty opponents who say that we can have foolproof incarceration.  What hypocrisy.  This is the same group of folks who tell us that our system of justice is so fraught with error that we cannot possibly continue the death penalty.  Yet, the facts tell us that living murderers harm and murder again, in prison, after escape and after improper release.  Executed murderers do not.  In addition, the US death penalty appears to be that criminal justice sanction which is the least likely to convict the factually innocent and the most likely to remedy such rare error upon post conviction review.

    X.  Death Penalty Opponents

    Why is it that some death penalty opponents appear to laugh off any potential for a deterrent effect of executions?  Because to admit that executions deter some potential murderers would be to admit that, in reaching their goals, they will knowingly benefit murderers at the cost of sacrificing more innocent lives.  Of course, opponents will never prove it is not a deterrent and many will admit that executions do deter some.

    Xl.  Conclusion

    Those of us who support execution do so because it is a just punishment.  The moral foundation for all punishments is that they are deserved.  One cannot support a punishment based upon deterrence alone.

    Reason, common sense and history all fall on the side of deterrence.  Be it Sweden or Rwanda, Texas or Michigan, Singapore or Chile, England or Japan, whether high crime rates or low, the death penalty will always deter some potential murderers.  Regardless of jurisdiction, the potential for negative outcomes will always restrict the behavior of some.  And, the weight of the evidence clearly supports execution as an enhanced deterrent.

    As Professor Rubin states, "Our evidence is that there are substantial benefits from executions and, thus, substantial costs of changing this policy (23).

    We support execution as a just and appropriate forfeiture of lives which deserve to be taken.  We also support execution as a just and appropriate method to save lives which deserve to be saved.

    1).  "Does Capital Punishment Have a Deterrent Effect? New Evidence from Postmoratorium Panel Data", American Law and Economics Review V5 N2 2003 (344-376), Hashem Dezhbakhsh, Paul H. Rubin and Joanna M. Shepherd.

    contact Dezhbakhsh at, ph 404-727-4679, Rubin at, ph 404-727-6365 and Shepherd at, ph. 404-727-8957

    The quotation is from the complete, pre publication study which can be found at
    <a href="http://use” target=”_blank”>http://use <a href="…” target=”_blank”>
    2)  "Getting Off Death Row: Commuted Sentences and the Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment," Journal of Law and Economics, Volume 46, Number 2, October 2003, at
    registration required

    H. Naci Mocan (, ph 303-556-8540) and R. Kaj Gottings (, 

    This is a revised version of "Pardons, Executions and Homicide," NBER WP8639)  at

    The quote is from the working paper "Pardons, Executions and Homicide",  October 2001, located at
    downloaded on 1/22/01

    3)  "EXECUTION MORATORIUM IS NO HOLIDAY FOR HOMICIDES", Prof. Dale O. Cloninger and Prof. Roberto Marchesini. go to
    based on the study "Execution and deterrence: a quasi-controlled group

    experiment", Dale O. Cloninger (, phone 281-283-3210), Roberto Marchesini (, phone 281-283-3215), Applied Economics, 4/01, Vol 33, N 5, p569 — p576

    4) Capital Punishment and the Deterrence Hypothesis: Some New Insights and Empirical Evidence, December 2001, Eastern Economic Journal, Forthcoming , ZHIQIANG LIU (e-mail, ph. 716-645-2121) on line at
    5) Murders of Passion, Execution Delays and the Deterrence of Capital Punishment, March 2003, at, Joanna M. Shepherd,, ph. 404-727-8957

    6). "State Executions, Deterrence and the Incidence of Murder", Paul R. Zimmerman (, March 3. 2003, Social Science Research Network,
    7) Dezhbakhsh, Hashem and Shepherd, Joanna, "The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: Evidence from a 'Judicial Experiment'" (Aug 19, 2003). Emory University Economics Working Paper No. 03-14 at

    contact Dezhbakhsh at or ph 404-727-4679 and Shepherd at, ph. 404-727-8957

    8)  "Pardons, Executions and Homicide", H. Naci Mocan ( and R. Kaj Gottings (, Journal of Law and Economics, forthcoming. Online version located at
    downloaded on 1/22/01

    copyright 1998-2006 Dudley Sharp


    Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters

    e-mail,  713-622-5491,

    Houston, Texas


    Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O'Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author. A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.

    [Admin note:  This lengthy comment was published only after cutting it substantially for the issue of length only.  If the author would like to write back with a web address where this information can be accessed in detail at a separate website, I would be happy to publish that link].

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    Dudley Sharp's comment appears to be a marvelous collection of statistical data supporting the notion that a death penalty deters crime. No doubt an equally long list of references could be created supporting the opposite view.

    In any case, the fact remains that the murder rate *in Iraq* (the subject of my post) has skyrocketed since it reinstated the death penalty. Therefore, Dudley's statistics, which likely do not include data from Iraq, are not necessarily relevant or unbiased.

    Of course, Dudley has (albeit indirectly) identified the key weakness in my post: drawing general conclusions from singular examples is not necessarily valid. My example of Iraq might be an oulier data point from which general conclusions should not be drawn. Still, within the context of Iraq, the death penalty has apparently made little difference.

    Bottom line: crime rates change for many reasons; no doubt the existence of a death penalty is one of many, many factors that influences whether someone pulls the trigger or not. It doesn't appear to influence the situation in Iraq, but perhaps it does influence behavior in other countries. The question then becomes (a) whether or not the death penalty is an efficient means of reducing crime, and (b) whether or not it is fairly applied. Considerable data suggests it meets neither of these conditions. At least in America, the death penalty is very costly to administer and it is disproportionately applied to African Americans — facts which both suggest that the death penalty is an inefficient and unjust remedy.

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    Lengthy citations of statistics from many sources analyzing the same small dataset attempting to spot a particular correlation (and with a wide variance in results) does not move me in any way to see an implication of causation.

    Sociopaths are dangerous killers, none have never been rehabilitated, and this criminal class is not deterred by the threat of execution. They need to be permanently removed from society. If we can afford to spend the $50,000/year to do this for each one, fine. If not, then let them be put up in the houses of their defense attorneys. Or grant the relatives of their victims a writ of absolution. There are alternatives to the death penalty.

    Crimes of passion are also a class that would not be deterred by any threat of punishment. This "temporary insanity" is a common class of murder, by people who had never previously been a threat to anyone, nor usually afterwards.

    Unlicensed professional killers get the maximum punishment however many they kill. No deterrence there. (Soldiers, FBI, and police on duty are licensed killers. Most hope not to use this option, and are generally trained well enough to avoid killing unless necessity can be proved.)

    As Jason points out, there are many independent variables affecting murder rates. Summer temperatures and jobless rates are examples of known significant factors. The maximum punishment that can be levied may, or may not, be a noticeable factor in the mix.

  5. "Justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtly be seen to be done." Gordon Wewart

    Have the debate about "what is justice" first, then have the debate about how to do it.

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