November 25, 2007

Death penalty: Theory vs. practice

Newsweek magazine has an interesting summary of the state of capital punishment in the United States today. The remarkable disconnect between theory and practice seems like another example of today's cultural schizophrenia. Consider these two competing facts:
  • Popular support for capital punishment remains fairly strong, at about 65%.
  • Front-line decision makers - judges, juries, and even prosecutors - are less and less willing to impose the ultimate punishment.
The reasons for this disconnect? The Newsweek writers pose a few possibilities, including highly publicized cases of wrongful conviction, increased attention to "mitigating circumstances" (such as child abuse) by the defense, and the skyrocketing legal costs of prosecuting death cases.

A new breed of prosecutor is another factor. As an example, Newsweek gives us Craig Watkins, the District Attorney of Dallas, Texas, the hang-'em-high state. Watkins is African American, a Democrat, and a former defense attorney. "In the near future, we will see the death penalty rarely," Watkins said. An even starker example not mentioned in the Newsweek article is Kamala Harris, the District Attorney of San Francisco, who has taken a public position against the death penalty.

For these and possibly other reasons, "what is acceptable in theory seems less and less tolerable in practice," the Newsweek authors comment. The article, entitled "Injection of Reflection," is online here.

Although it isn't mentioned in the Newsweek article, an intense debate is currently underway about whether capital punishment deters crime. The issue has resurfaced thanks to a series of research studies by economists, suggesting that the death penalty may deter crime. Other scholars, most of them non-economists, are highly critical of the studies. Adam Liptak of the New York Times summarized the competing positions in a Nov. 18 article.