Death Penalty by the Numbers

This month the Justice Department released “Capital Punishment 2001,” its latest annual survey of death penalty statistics. A prowl through the data prompts a few reflections on the capital punishment debate.

1. It is striking that a controversy so large revolves around numbers so small. The death penalty is available in 38 states and the federal system, yet only 66 convicted killers were executed in the United States last year. That was fewer than the 85 executed in 2000, which in turn was fewer than the 98 executed in 1999.

Just as fewer murderers were put to death, fewer were sentenced to death. Only 155 people entered Death Row in 2001 — the third consecutive decline and the lowest number in 22 years. All told, the population of prisoners under sentence of death at the end of 2001 was 3,581, a slight decrease from the year before.

What these statistics mean isn’t clear. Opponents of capital punishment were quick to claim that jurors, alert to the supposed risk of executing innocents, have grown more reluctant to impose the death penalty. (Actually, the risk of a wrongful execution is vanishingly small.) Others suggest that just as the overall number of murders decreased during the 1990s, when most recent Death Row arrivals would have committed their crimes, so too the number of *capital* murders (those eligible for the death penalty) decreased. Which argument is more plausible? Without knowing how many prosecutors actually sought the death penalty in 2001, there is no way to tell.

2. But whatever else might be said about these numbers, they are eclipsed by a far larger and more heartbreaking number, one not mentioned in the Justice Department’s report: the number of murder victims. In 2001, *15,980* Americans lost their lives to murder — a death toll hundreds of times greater than the small body count of executed murderers.

Year after year, the number of inmates put to death by the state — usually painlessly and after years of due process — adds up to a minuscule fraction of the number of Americans purposely shot, beaten, strangled, knifed, poisoned, burned, drowned, hanged, and tortured to death by murderers. And yet which set of deaths elicits more public outrage, more media attention, more demands for reform, more cries to protect the innocent? Which occasions more debates, more candlelight vigils, more international protest?

If those who pour so much passion, effort, and money into wiping out the death penalty would pour themselves instead into wiping out homicide, who knows how many thousands of innocent lives they might save? But for reasons I have never been able to fathom, they would rather save the lives of the guilty.

3. Capital punishment is routinely denounced as racially unjust — more likely to be meted out to blacks than to whites. “Capital Punishment 2001″ proves the charge false.

“During 2001,” the authors write, “63 men and 3 women were executed: 48 whites, 17 blacks, and 1 American Indian.” Of the 155 convicted murderers sentenced to death that year, “89 were white, 61 were black, 4 were Asian, and 1 was self-identified Hispanic.” The Death Row population as of Dec. 31, 2001, was 55 percent white, 43 percent black, and 2 percent Indian, Asian, or something else. Of the 749 people executed in the United States between 1977 and 2001, 56 percent were white, 35 percent black, 7 percent Hispanic, and 1.6 percent of another race. Inasmuch as black murderers commit about half of all homicides in the United States, the numbers make it clear that the death penalty is imposed with disproportionate severity not on blacks, but on whites.

Whites even get executed *faster* than blacks. The average elapsed time from sentence to execution for white inmates put to death in 2001 was 11 years, 2 months. For blacks, it was 13 years, 10 months — 2-1/2 years longer. The anti-black “racism” of the US death penalty system is like the Abominable Snowman: ugly, alarming, widely believed in, and nonexistent.

4. Executions are unnecessary, death-penalty foes often argue — all we have to do is lock killers up and throw away the key. Anyone inclined to believe them ought to take a look at Page 10 of the new federal report, where inmates are classified by their legal status at the time they committed capital murder.

At least 98 killers now on Death Row were already in prison when they murdered their victims; at least 37 others were prison escapees. Locking up murderers guarantees nothing. Some will always escape and murder again. Some will kill behind bars. In Pennsylvania last week, two vicious thugs serving long sentences for gruesome murders were convicted of attempting to butcher a fellow inmate. Using a smuggled razor, they slashed his throat from ear to ear, severing his trachea. Miraculously, he survived. Other victims don’t.

The only way to permanently incapacitate a murderer is to kill him. Common sense says as much. The numbers say it too.

  • trimmerman

    I can’t believe no one commented on this before. Do you happen to know the proper names of the fallacies involved in the denial? Whenever the subject comes up there is a conjured image of a bad song or an even worse movie, usually in a southern state. Where there was a fair and speedy trial followed by a hangin’ out back of the courthouse. If those days ever existed they are long past. Ayn Rand said all the problems of the world are philosophical. This is a poster child example. We have a right to self-defence, and as we have quite correctly delegated that function to the government body for all but the most imminent emergencies. It is that body’s responsibility to act. Philosophy is not easy. Implementing the results of philosophical thought will be hard as well. Moral bravery must be lifted to a level higher than has been seen so far.

  • writeby

    FYI: About capital punishment, AR said, quoting from ARI:

    “She thought it was morally just, but legally dangerous—because of the possibility of jury errors which could not be rectified after the death of the innocent man. She had no position on whether there should be a death penalty or not.”

    I agree but go even further: If there is not *complete certainty* (going beyond a shadow of a doubt), it is better that a murderer go free than for an innocent man to be executed.

    However, where the proof of guilt (of murder) is so overwhelming as to achieve complete certainty of the defendant’s guilt (serial killers, e.g., Bundy; Dahmer ; etc.), then capital punishment is not just an option; _it becomes a legal requirement_.

    (Beyond 1st degree murder, e.g., serial rape (child or adult), torture over a long period of captivity (years), etc., I tend toward, respectively, castration and punishment in kind. However, I suppose those would fall into the category of cruel and unusual punishment and, therefore, be unconstitutional.)

  • trimmerman

    With the decade long appeal process we have it seems extremely unlikely anyone could fall through the cracks and be hanged unjustly. I too, want proof to a painful degree of certainty. The justice system must be held to the highest levels of professionalism and common sense. Hollywood has made lots of documentaries about cases with sloppy investigations. Some people were set free after years in prison. Many others avoided punishment because of poor evidence gathering. It sounds like I’m talking myself out of this but I am not. The vast majority of convicted murders are guilty as sin, no doubt. So what do we do?

  • writeby

    Because man is fallible, certainty must be absolute, that is, meet a 100% proof positive, objective criteria.

    For example (& only as example), one might establish such in three areas of evidence:

    ==DNA + ballistics + no alibi

    ==Fingerprints + eye witness and video correlation (b/c eyewitness evidence is, based on past cases, so untrustworthy) + significant crime scene evidence (blood, fibers, gunshot residue, etc.) tying defendant to the murder

    ==DNA + Fingerprints + Opportunity

    == for those cases in which a confession was obtained: fingerprints + possession of murder weapon + elocution describing the crime in detail, including facts not publicly known


    Once the case meets such objective criteria, death then becomes the mandatory sentence.

    Furthermore, appeals must be limited in kind. For instance, new evidence; proof of attorney incompetence (defense) or of prosecutorial malfeasance, &c.

    I’m not an attorney; however, I’m sure such objective criteria can be established to certify 100% certainty convictions while allowing also an objectively established limited layer of appeals based on rational standards.

    Whatever is resolved, though, the focus of such must always be on the absolute prevention of executing an innocent man, not on executing the guilty. If there’s even a hint of a morsel of doubt, then execution must be prohibited & that prohibition must be minutely detailed & made statutory.

  • trimmerman

    I’ve never seen a paragraph written like a mathematical equation before. Is that a type of technical writing? Anyway, I think with the improvements in DNA testing and online archiving we will soon get to the point where most crimes with unknown perpetrators will be solved almost instantly. It’s a bad time to be a criminal.

  • writeby

    LOL. No, they my substition for bulleted points. Couldn’t use the proper html tags.

    As for the last, I hope you’re right.

  • tocnwth

    I do not believe we should have a death penalty, that is changed as I have grown older and see the misconceptions and inequality of those who are sent to death row.


    SOMEONE TELL ME WHAT MULTI-MILLIONAIRE HAS RECEIVED THE DEATH PENALTY EXCEPT MAYBE Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg who were convicted for treason in 1953, maybe could have been multi-millionaires..

  • tocnwth

    The only people I know for the last 57 years to receive the death penalty are those who do not have the money to fight the charge with the most high powered lawyers in the country.
    We only execute the poor and let the rich go free of get a 6 months sentence in a mansion in an vacation resort!!!

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