Do We Need the Death Penalty?

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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Across the country, support for the death penalty has dropped from 80 percent to 65 percent in the past decade. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) recently asserted that "the facts are on the side of those" who say the state's death penalty does not deter murder.

Really? Retired British prison psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple has pointed out that after Britain abolished capital punishment in 1965, its homicide rate doubled. The types of killings that once would have led to the death penalty, such as murders by those on parole for lesser crimes, "increased disproportionately." Further, improved trauma medicine has reduced fatalities from violence by up to four-fifths. So, Dalrymple has said, in effect "the rate of homicidal violence has increased by up to 10 times."

Maryland has executed five convicted murderers since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. In 2005, the state recorded 522 murders. With a population of 5.6 million, that meant a homicide rate of 9.9 per 100,000 people.

Virginia has executed 98 convicted murderers since 1976. In 2005, it recorded 461 homicides in a population of 7.6 million, 6.1 per 100,000 -- nearly 40 percent lower than Maryland's.

The District of Columbia has no death penalty. Its last execution occurred in 1957. In 2005, the District endured 195 murders, 35.4 per 100,000, a rate more than five times higher than Virginia's.

It seems premature, at least, to insist that the possibility of capital punishment has no effect on public safety. And deterrence does not have to mean absolute prevention. Even a 10 percent decrease in Maryland's homicide rate, for instance, would save more than four dozen lives annually.

Despite what some opponents say, capital punishment is not a euphemism for state-sanctioned murder. Ethically, murder and execution are antonyms, not synonyms, based on the original Hebrew sense of the Sixth Commandment, which is "thou shall not murder" and not the often-mistranslated "thou shall not kill."

As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once explained, "in part, capital punishment is an expression of society's moral outrage at particularly offensive conduct. This function may be unappealing to many, but it is essential in an ordered society that asks its citizens to rely on legal processes rather than self-help to vindicate their wrongs . . ."

But "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt" leaves the possibility of executing someone wrongly convicted, some argue. Should not life imprisonment be preferred?

Two examples suggest the answer is no.

ยท In 2005, Germany freed Mohammed Ali Hamadi after the terrorist had served 18 years for murdering Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem. Press reports said that "a life sentence in Germany ranges between 20 and 25 years, with the possibility of parole after 15 years."

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