More Executions, Fewer Murders

On April 29th, the State of Oklahoma accidentally botched the execution of a convicted murderer named Clayton Lockett, who had been sentenced to die by lethal injection.The 43 minutes it took Lockett to die of a chemically-induced heart-attack has generated predictable calls for the abolition of capital punishment from the usual suspects on the left half of the political spectrum.

While his execution by lethal injection was far more compassionate than the fate accorded his victim – who was brutally beaten, shot and buried alive – its individual deterrent effect is beyond dispute, since this predator will never again harm another innocent White woman.

Equally predictable is that in the debate to follow, the victim will be studiously ignored while abolitionists of every stripe will ensure that the public remains focused on what is alleged to have been an agonizingly slow death by Lockett.For this reason, it is worthwhile to reconsider the primary motivation for enacting capital punishment statutes in the first place: That is, their General Deterrent Effect upon potential murderers, and the innocent lives thus spared.

The quaint notion that capital punishment is not an effective general deterrent to murder came as a result of some very flawed research done in the late 1950s by a leftist sociologist named Thorsten Sellin (Thorstein Sellin, The Death Penalty. American Law Institute, Philadelphia, 1959). As often occurs in these endeavors, objective truth was sacrificed to the “loftier” goals of ideology: That is, Sellin candidly acknowledged that he set out to “prove” that capital punishment did not deter the crime of murder in the U.S., and his bias was immediately evident in his results.

Sellin’s “methodology” compared murder rates in American states with capital punishment statutes “on their books,” against murder rates in states without capital punishment statutes of any kind.  Using a simple-minded correlation technique, Sellin found no significant difference between these two categories of states.

The flaw in his methodology consisted of the fact that many states with capital punishment statutes “on their books” never actually used them, and some – particularly in New England — had not carried out an execution for 50 years or more at the time of his study. This created a fraudulent dichotomy between these two categories of states, and obscured any deterrent effect there might have been.

Furthermore, leftists in academia and the news media seized on and perpetuated Sellin’s erroneous conclusions for decades, thus ensuring that the public remained egregiously misinformed about the deterrent effect of capital punishment.


Those who value objective truth as well as good government are forever indebted to economist Isaac Ehrlich, who re-examined the deterrent effect of capital punishment following the Supreme Court’s decision in Furman v. Georgia (1972,) which instituted a “moratorium” on executions in the United States.

In a more elegant and sophisticated design, Ehrlich’s model created three categories of states: First, states that had capital punishment statutes and which actually used them; Second, states which had capital punishment statutes but never used them; and, third, states which did not have capital punishment statutes of any kind.

Using a far more sophisticated Simultaneous Equation-Multivariate Regression Analysis, Ehrlich found that the application of capital punishment has a demonstrable and powerful general deterrent effect upon the crime of murder. In fact, Ehrlich found that for every person executed for the crime of murder in the United States, it saved the lives of between seven and eight innocent victims.  (I. Ehrlich. “The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment.” American Economic Review, June of 1975.)

Ehrlich based his study of criminal deterrence on a model first popularized by Nobel Laureate Gary Becker, which predicts that criminals respond to incentives within the context of crime and the criminal justice system, just as they and most others do in practically all other aspects of our lives.

Ehrlich’s hypothesis was fairly straightforward: Increasing the severity of a given punishment to potential murderers — in combination with the likelihood of its application — should result in a lower incidence of the behavior studied, in this case, the crime of murder. Interestingly, Ehrlich’s later use of identical methodologies to study the incidence of other, non-capital crimes generated little controversy within legal and “scientific” circles: This proves that the real opposition to his capital punishment research was political and ideological in nature, rather than scientific.


Predictably, the left immediately set out to try to prove Ehrlich wrong.  Having recently succeeded in convincing the Supreme Court to place a moratorium on executions in Furman, the Cultural Marxists put on a full-court press: They weren’t about to allow Ehrlich’s research to go unanswered, especially when it demonstrated a powerful rationale for executions. In a hastily written rebuttal in the Yale Law Journal, a leftist University of Iowa Law professor and a co-author attacked Ehrlich for not holding constant certain unrelated (or “exogenous”) variables in his study.  (D. Baldus and J. Cole, “A Comparison of the Work of Thorstein Sellin and Isaac Ehrlich on the Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment,” Yale Law Journal, Dec. of 1975.)

Confronted with such ignorance and phony “scholarship,” Ehrlich was gracious, but did respond with the following: “This error by Baldus and Cole betrays quite a fundamental misunderstanding of the methodology which they have undertaken to evaluate.” I. Ehrlich. “The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: Reply.” American Economic Review. June of 1977.)

The “scholars” at the Yale Law Journal applied the same intellectual honesty and rigor to their critique of Ehrlich’s study as their comrades and intellectual heirs currently apply to the debate surrounding the deterrent effect from Concealed Handgun Licenses, which have produced a 35-year “across-the-board” decline in violent crime rates in the United States. In both instances, ideology was allowed to trump objective truth.

Such critics work in consort with their allies in the legal profession, who doggedly undermine the deterrent effect of capital punishment by dragging out the appeals process — sometimes for as long as 20 years — so that many executions are too far removed in time and memory to retain their full deterrent effect.

These abolitionists then turn around and employ the length and expense of the appeals process as an argument againstcapital punishment, contending that such lengthy appeals have made capital punishment too expensive to retain (Jeffrey Fagan, “Capital Punishment: Deterrent Effects and Capital Costs,” Columbia Law School Magazine. Summer, 2006).


A new and more sophisticated analytical technique called “Panel Data-Sets” has been developed, which appears very promising, and has allowed researchers to eliminate many earlier methodological errors that plagued all such studies, including that of Ehrlich. For example, if State A adopts capital punishment and its murder rate then declines, while State B abolishes capital punishment and its murder rate then increases, the decrease in A and increase in B tend to offset each other, suggesting no consequences from either state law. This phenomenon is referred to as an “Aggregation Bias,” and is avoided by the application of these panel data-sets. Essentially, panel-data sets permit a more accurate longitudinal study of data: They allow researchers to follow various combinations of individual states or counties over time, thus providing multiple observations for study by each individual data-set in the sample.

If panel data-sets sound familiar, it is because they were employed by researchers John Lott and David Mustard, who demonstrated that concealed-carry laws were “the most effective means of reducing violent crime ever studied by economists” in their seminal 1997 article. (J. Lott and D. Mustard, “Crime, Deterrence, and Right-to-Carry Concealed Handguns.” Journal of Legal Studies, Jan., 1997.)

Several recent studies employing these panel data-sets have demonstrated a stunning vindication of Isaac Ehrlich’s original research, and many show an even greater deterrent effect from capital punishment than that first demonstrated by Ehrlich in his pioneering study in 1975.

Thus, Dezhbakhsh and Shepherd found that each U.S. execution for the crime of murder saved the lives of 18 innocent victims, by virtue of its general deterrent effect (H. Dezhbakhsh and J. Shepherd. “The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment,” Economic Inquiry, July of 2006).

D. Cloninger and R. Marchesini found that the 13-month Texas Death Penalty “moratorium” (Jan. 1996 to Feb. 1997) precipitated the murder of 90 additional victims, whereas re-instituting executions “significantly” reduced the Texas murder rate (D. Cloninger and R. Marchesini. “Execution Moratorium is No Holiday for Homicides” Applied Economics, 33 no. 5, 2001).

Paul Zimmerman, a former Reagan Administration Economist, found that each execution spared the lives of 14 innocent victims as a result of capital punishment’s deterrent effect. (P. Zimmerman. “State Executions, Deterrence, and the Incidence of Murder” Journal of Applied Economics, May of 2004.)

In his review of the most recent studies on the deterrent effect of capital punishment for the Senate Judiciary Committee on February 1, 2006, former Reagan Economic Adviser Paul Rubin summarized his interpretation of the literature in this manner:

“The literature is easy to summarize: Almost all modern studies and all the refereed studies find a significant deterrent effect of capital punishment. Only one study questions these results. To an economist, this is not surprising: We expect criminals and potential criminals to respond to sanctions, and execution is the most severe sanction available.”

There is an old adage bemoaning the fact that “A lie is half-way around the world before the truth can get its boots on…”

This is particularly true in the Social Sciences, which have been largely subverted by Cultural Marxists in the course of their “long march through the institutions.” However, if there is one lesson to be gleaned from the debate surrounding capital punishment — beyond its deterrent effect, it is that good research truly can make a difference if researchers muster greater courage, vision and integrity than the army of cultural Marxist ideologues that currently dominate academia.

Mr. Holt is the National President and Chairman of the Council of Conservative Citizens, and a former anti-busing St. Louis School Board Member.

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