WHEN MURDERERS DIE, INNOCENTS LIVE
By Jeff Jacoby
The Boston Globe
September 28, 2993
Governor Mitt Romney has charged a blue-ribbon commission with drafting a
death-penalty law for Massachusetts that can be applied with 100 percent
infallibility. The commission will not be able to do so -- no legal instrument
can be 100 percent infallible -- but I don't blame the governor for wanting it
In recent years, anti-death penalty propagandists have succeeded in stoking the
fear that capital punishment is being carelessly meted out. But it's a bogus
accusation: Of the 875 prisoners executed in the United States in modern times,
not one has been retroactively proved innocent. Widely trumpeted claims meant to
illustrate the system's sloppiness -- that more than 100 innocent men have been
freed from Death Row, for example, or that death-penalty cases have a 68 percent
error rate -- fall apart under scrutiny. In fact, so exacting is the due process
in these cases that the death penalty in America is probably the most accurately
administered criminal sanction in the world.
The propaganda has taken its toll, however. Romney knows that many people who
would otherwise support capital punishment now hesitate for fear it may lead to
an awful miscarriage of justice. Hence his call for "a standard of proof that is
incontrovertible" -- an uncompromising benchmark endorsed by members of the new
panel. "In this work," says co-chairman Frederick Bieber, a geneticist at
Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, "there is no room for error."
That is a worthy goal, but it cannot be an absolute criterion. No worthwhile
human endeavor is utterly foolproof. Dr. Bieber's hospital would have to shut
down its operating rooms if surgeons had to guarantee their infallibility. Even
at hospitals as renowned as the Brigham, patients sometimes die on the operating
table because of blunders or inadvertence. Is that an argument for abolishing
surgery? Should air travel be banned because innocent passengers may lose their
lives in crashes? Should the pharmaceutical industry be shut down because the
wrong drug or dosage, mistakenly taken or prescribed, can kill?
To make the perfect the enemy of the good is irrational and counterproductive.
The benefits of surgery, air travel, and prescription drugs are enormous -- far
too valuable to give up even though we know that people will die because of the
fallibility of doctors and pilots and people who handle medicine. The same is
true of capital punishment: The benefits of a legal system in which judges and
juries have the option of sentencing the cruelest or coldest murderers to death
far outweigh the potential risk of executing an innocent person. And there is
this added reassurance: The risk of an erroneous execution is infinitesimal, and
getting smaller all the time.
And the benefits? First and foremost, the death penalty makes it possible for
justice to be done to those who commit the worst of all crimes. The execution of
a murderer sends a powerful moral message: that the innocent life he took was so
precious, and the crime he committed so horrific, that he forfeits his own right
to remain alive.
When a vicious killer is sent to the electric chair or strapped onto a gurney
for a lethal injection, society is condemning his crime with a seriousness and
intensity that no other punishment achieves. By contrast, a society that
sentences killers to nothing worse than prison -- no matter how depraved the
killing or how innocent the victim -- is a society that doesn't *really* think
murder is so terrible.
But there is more to executions than justice for the dead. There is also
protection for the living.
Though Romney didn't say so when he introduced his new commission, the real
threat to innocent life is not the availability of the death penalty, but the
absence of one. For every time a murderer is executed, innocent lives are saved.
The foes of capital punishment have denied for years that putting murderers to
death has a deterrent effect on other potential killers. That has always flown
in the face of common sense and history -- after all, wherever murder is made
punishable by death, murder rates generally decline. But it also flies in the
face of a lengthening shelf of research that confirms the death penalty's
A recent study at the University of Colorado, for instance, finds "a
statistically significant relationship between executions, pardons, and
homicide. Specifically, each additional execution reduces homicides by five to
six." A paper by three Emory University economists concludes: "Our results
suggest that capital punishment has a strong deterrent effect. . . . In
particular, each execution results, on average, in 18 fewer murders -- with a
margin of error of plus or minus 10."
Comparable results have been reached by scholars at the University of Houston,
SUNY Buffalo, Clemson, and the Federal Communications Commission. All these
studies have been published within the past three years. And all of them
underscore an inescapable bottom line: The execution of murderers protects
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)