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Death Penalty Deters


I have a distinct recollection of one of my first lectures at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Stephen Schulhofer, a brilliant academic (he's now at NYU) who looked as if he'd responded to Central Casting's call for a liberal, was leading a discussion of the death penalty - and he was having difficulty finding anyone to speak in support.

I still had hair back then, admittedly not much, and perhaps my close-cropped coif was just the invitation Schulhofer needed to include me as a participant as he looked for a contrarian. I took the bait and weighed in.

"But do you think it's a deterrent, Mr. Smerconish?" he pressed. When I responded affirmatively, my classmates literally hissed their disapproval.

For me, the only thing that has changed relative to the death penalty in the intervening 20 years is that I've grown accustomed to the public ridicule that often accompanies my view. I still think it's a deterrent, and my opinion is emboldened by a recent analysis of execution and homicide data published in the Wall Street Journal.

Roy Adler and Michael Summers, both professors at Pepperdine University, have recently analyzed the relationship between the number of U.S. executions by year and the number of murders in the year thereafter for 1979-2004. They relied on raw data supplied by the Death Penalty Information Center and the FBI.

They have documented a relationship between capital punishment and the future rate of homicide. When executions leveled off, the professors found, murders increased. And when executions increased, the number of people murdered dropped off. In a year-by-year analysis, Adler and Summers found that each execution was associated with 74 fewer murders the following year.

That's a stunning statistic, but as I have already learned, not one that will necessarily sway death-penalty opponents. When I shared the data last week with actor, M.A.S.H. TV star, and death-penalty opponent Mike Farrell, he dismissed it as "peddled" and part of an agenda: "It's a claim, it's a typical claim that comes up periodically, and it's been refuted generally. As is always the case, this hard data is analyzed by people that have a bias one way or the other."

But one of the Pepperdine professors assured me they brought no agenda to the table.

"The morality of the issue is something for someone else to argue," Adler, himself a Fulbright professor, told me this month. "We're just simply presenting the data and lifting the veil that says, 'There's no deterrent effect, therefore . . . ' Well, there is, and it's about 74 to 1. And other people can argue moral grounds on either side."

Based on their analysis, Adler and Summers properly recast the issue that confronts society when deciding whether to implement the death penalty. The question is not whether to spare the life of the convicted, but rather, whether to spare the lives of 74 innocents in the year that follows.

"Our intent was to open this up to a dialogue. The ratio is not 'save a life or not;' it's 'save this life or save dozens of others next year.' And that's a much more difficult moral dilemma that deserves wide discussion, I think," Adler told me.

My interview with Adler and review of his work with Summers reminded me of a similar body of work conducted in the 1980s by a then-Auburn University criminology professor named Steven Stack. Now a professor at Wayne State University, Stack sought to answer a more specific question: Do well-publicized executions deter future homicides? Because if the public is unaware of an execution, Stack argued, its deterrent effect cannot be calculated.

Stack targeted 16 execution cases between 1950 and 1980 that met his criterion for "nationally publicized." His analysis led him to conclude that approximately 30 fewer homicides are committed in the month that follows a publicized execution story.

When I caught up with Stack last week, he told me his work has withstood the test of time and that he was looking forward to publishing an update that is currently being circulated for peer review. When I told him his findings were not as significant as those of Adler and Summers, he appropriately quipped, "I suppose it's especially significant if you're one of those 30 people who would've been killed otherwise."

Of course, what put the issue of crime and capital punishment on my mind was the violence against Philadelphia police officers, specifically the murder of Officer Chuck Cassidy. How ironic that one day after the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office decided not to pursue death for Solomon Montgomery (who pleaded guilty to the brutal killing of Officer Gary Skerski), the execution of Officer Cassidy rocked the city anew.

You can't blame the D.A.'s Office or the Skerski family for not pressing for Montgomery's execution. No doubt they were reflecting that in one month, the Faulkner family will mark the 26-year anniversary of the night Mumia Abu-Jamal murdered Officer Danny Faulkner - a death-penalty case with no end in sight. Soon, the Cassidy family may have to make its wishes known relative to John Lewis, given his confession Tuesday to the murder of Chuck Cassidy.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court has instituted a de facto death-penalty moratorium. For all practical purposes, capital punishment is on life support.

Too bad.

Because while the academics tabulate their evidence suggesting that the death penalty deters crime, what I told my law professor at Penn two decades ago remains incontrovertible. When he asked me if I thought the death penalty was a deterrent, I borrowed a line I'd heard Frank Rizzo once deliver.

"Professor," I said, "I know it deters at least one person at a time."