The Rationality Syndrome
Statistics fail activists
In pursuing their ideology at the expense of honest reporting,
many journalists and political activists have perpetuated a number of myths
about the death penalty, riddling the debate with shoddy statistics.
The most recent perversion came from Columbia University, which published a
study titled "A Broken System: Error Rates in Capital Cases, 1973-1995,"
claiming that there was a 68 percent "error rate" in capital punishment cases.
The study concluded that capital punishment is "collapsing under the weight of
its own mistakes."
But the media failed to mention that what Columbia Law Professor James Liebman
meant by "error rate" was not that 68 percent of people on death row were found
to be innocent. On the contrary, Liebman and his co-authors were unable to find
a single case in the 23 years they reviewed in which an innocent person had been
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, professor of law Paul G. Cassell revealed
that the 68 percent figure "turns out to include any reversal of a capital
sentence at any stage by appellate courts -- even if those courts ultimately
uphold the capital sentence."
Cassell goes on to explain that if on appeal, an appellate court simply
requested additional findings from the trial court, the Columbia study marked an
Likewise, the 1-in-7 ratio, commonly purported to expose the egregious level of
errors made in death penalty cases, is misleading. Disseminators of the
statistic say that for every 7 people executed, 1 has his sentence overturned.
MIT professor of management science, Arnold Barnett, called the ratio
"meaningless" because it does not constitute an error rate as many people had
An error rate is computed by dividing the number of innocent persons executed by
the total number executed. Reporting how many people were not executed "yields
no insight," according to Barnett, simply because it does not necessarily
represent a flaw in the system. It instead shows that the system corrected
itself, not that any execution was or has been incorrectly performed.
Another common misconception is that the murderers and rapists sitting on death
row are in actuality the victims of racism. Unfortunately for anti-death penalty
activists, the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that convicted white murderers
are more likely to be sentenced to death than their black counterparts.
Looking for another means of pushing their agenda, capital punishment opponents
have argued that black murderers with white victims are more likely to get the
death penalty than white murderers with black victims. The numbers are easily
distorted because 80 % of the United States population is white and only 13 % is
As a result, if murderers selected their victims at random, for every 10 murders
committed by white people, only one victim would be black, whereas for every 10
murders committed by black people, 8 victims would be white.
Rather than confront the ethical questions of retributive justice, many
activists instead argue that the death penalty is just too expensive, saying
that it costs more than simply giving convicts life sentences. Currently,
however, the added expense of executing people is not the result of added due
process, but of unnecessary delays in federal courts. Writing in the National
Review, former Arizona Assistant Attorney General Andrew Thomas observes,
"Between 1977 and 1996, the average time that a condemned prisoner sat on death
row almost tripled, from just over four years to over 11 years."
Also, the positive consequences that the death penalty has in reducing crime
should not be forgotten. During the last 10 years, as the number of executions
has increased, the number of murders has simultaneously dropped. Political
Commentator William Tucker, in the National Review Online, remarks that even
more interesting is the fact that "the most dramatic decline in murders over the
last decade has been precisely in those regions that have had the most
executions .... Since 1990, (Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas) have
performed half the nation's executions ... (and) murder rates in these 4 states
have fallen faster than anywhere else in the country."
Obviously reasonable people may disagree as to what burden of proof ought to be
required for criminal conviction and what measures, such as DNA testing, may be
enlisted, to assess guilt. The ethical debate over whether capital punishment
should exist is entirely different and should not be confused so easily with its
practical implementation, as all criminal cases face such questions. The death
penalty is not any different in this respect, except in that once it is carried
out, it cannot be reversed.
This does not, however, undermine its legitimacy because in erecting a criminal
justice system, one must concede some level of imperfection, as the courts, just
like human beings, are fallible. Rather than have an innocent person go to jail,
society must be willing to tolerate a certain multiple number of guilty persons
escaping punishment. But instead of freeing guilty men in excess of this
multiple, society has assessed that the harm to it is less than allowing that
multiple to go without punishment, because the victims of these men were
JAIME SNEIDER, Columbia University Daily