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Killers laugh in face of death penalty threat, say US experts

Expensive executions fail as a deterrent

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Researchers have concluded there's no concrete evidence that the death penalty has any effect on homicide rates in the United States.

The Committee on Deterrence and the Death Penalty took a look at "conflicting" studies of the threat of capital punishment's influence on would-be murderers since the US Supreme Court ended a four-year moratorium on the death penalty back in 1976.

It notes: "Some studies conclude that executions save large numbers of lives; others conclude that executions actually increase homicides; and still others conclude that executions have no effect on homicide rate."

The committee's main criticism of previous researchers is their failure to consider the comparative deterrent effect of execution, or "a lengthy prison sentence or one of life without the possibility of parole".

The report summary (here, PDF), says this failure to specify "the noncapital sanction components of the sanction regime for the punishment of homicide" is a "major deficiency".

Previous reports also suffer from "the use of incomplete or implausible models of potential murderers’ perceptions of and response to the capital punishment component of a sanction regime".

This, the Los Angeles Times clarifies, means these studies "don’t determine whether potential killers think about the possibility of spending their lives in prison or ending up on death row before they commit their crimes".

Committee chairman Daniel Nagin said: “We recognize this conclusion will be controversial to some, but nobody is well served by unfounded claims about the death penalty. Nothing is known about how potential murderers actually perceive their risk of punishment.”

The committee concludes that "research to date on the effect of capital punishment on homicide is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates".

It adds: "Therefore, the committee recommends that these studies not be used to inform deliberations requiring judgments about the effect of the death penalty on homicide."

Last week, Connecticut became the 17th US state to abolish capital punishment, joining Alaska, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin on the list of abstainers.

In the case of Connecticut, the decision appears to have been based more on financial considerations than deterrence. Condemned inmates strain state budgets, with California spending "an additional $184m per year total on its more than 700 death row prisoners than if they had been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole".

Shari Silberstein, of anti-death penalty organisation Equal Justice USA, explained that people "are weighing the cost ... and realizing that the death penalty is a very ineffective way to keep the public safe, especially for the money". ®

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