In their story, “States With No Death Penalty Share Lower Homicide Rates”, The New York Times did their best to illustrate that the death penalty was not a deterrent, by showing that the average murder rate in death penalty states was higher than the average rate in non death penalty states and, it is. (1)
What the Times failed to observe is that their own study confirmed that you can’t simply compare those averages to make that determination regarding deterrence.
As one observer stated: “The Times story does nothing more than repeat the dumbest of all dumb mistakes — taking the murder rate in a traditionally high-homicide state with capital punishment (like Texas) and comparing it to a traditionally low-homicide state with no death penalty (like North Dakota) and concluding that the death penalty doesn’t work at all. Even this comparison doesn’t work so well. The Times own graph shows Texas, where murder rates were 40 percent above Michigan’s in 1991, has now fallen below Michigan . . .”. (2)
Within the Times article, Michigan Governor John Engler states, “I think Michigan made a wise decision 150 years ago,” referring to the state’s abolition of the death penalty in 1846.   “We’re pretty proud of the fact that
we don’t have the death penalty.”(3)
Even though easily observed on the Times’ own graphics, they failed to mention the obvious. Michigan’s murder rate is near or above that of 31 of the US’s 38 death penalty states. And then, it should be recognized that Washington, DC (not found within the Times study) and Detroit, Michigan, two non death penalty jurisdictions, have been perennial leaders in murder and violent crime rates for the past 30 years. Delaware, a jurisdiction similar in size to them, leads the nation in executions per murder, but has significantly lower rates of murders and violent crime than do either DC or Detroit, during that same period.
Obviously, the Times study and any other simple comparison of jurisdictions with and without the death penalty, means little, with regard to deterrence.
Also revealed within the Times study, but not pointed out by them,: “One-third of the nation’s executions take place in Texas—and the steepest decline in homicides has occurred in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas, which together account for nearly half the nation’s executions.” (4)
And, the Times also failed to mention that the major US jurisdiction with the most executions is Harris County (Houston, Texas), which has seen a 73% decrease in murder rates since resuming executions in 1982 — possibly the largest reduction for a major metropolitan area since that time.
Also omitted from the Times review, although they had the data, is that during a virtual cessation of executions, from 1966-1980, that murders more than doubled in the US. Any other rise and fall in murders, after that time, has been only a fraction of that change, indicating a strong and direct correlation between the lack of executions and the dramatic increase in murders, if that is specifically what you are looking for.
If deterrence was measured by direct correlation’s between execution, or the lack thereof, and murder rates, as implied by the Times article, and as wrongly assumed by those blindly accepting that model, then there would be no debate, only more confusion. Which may have been the Times goal.
Let’s take a look at the science.
Some non death penalty jurisdictions, such as South Africa and Mexico lead the world in murder and violent crime rates. But then some non death penalty jurisdictions, such as Sweden, have quite low rates. Then there are such death penalty jurisdictions as Japan and Singapore which have low rates of such crime. But then other death penalty jurisdictions, such as Rwanda and Louisiana, that have high rates.
To which an astute observer will respond: But socially, culturally, geographically, legally, historically and many other ways, all of those jurisdictions are very different. Exactly, a simple comparison of only execution rates and murder rates cannot tell the tale of deterrence. And within the US, between states, there exist many variables which will effect the rates of homicides.
And, as so well illustrated by the Times graphics, a non death penalty state, such as Michigan has high murder rates and another non death penalty state, such as North Dakota, has low murder rates and then there are death penalty states, such as Louisiana, with high murder rates and death penalty states, such South Dakota, with low rates. Apparently, unbeknownst to the Times, but quite obvious to any neutral observer, there are other factors at play here, not just the presence or absence of the death penalty. Most thinking folks already knew that.
As Economics Professor Ehrlich stated in the Times piece and, as accepted by all knowledgeable parties, there are many factors involved in such evaluations. That is why there is a wide variation of crime rates both within and between some death penalty and non death penalty jurisdictions, and small variations within and between others.  Any direct comparison of only execution rates and only murder rates, to determine deterrence, would reflect either ignorance or deception.
Ehrlich called the Times study “a throwback to the vintage 1960s statistical analyses done by criminologists who compared murder rates in neighboring states where capital punishment was either legal or illegal.” “The statistics involved in such comparisons have long been recognized as devoid of scientific merit.” He called the Times story a “one sided affair” devoid of merit. Most interesting is that Ehrlich was interviewed by the Time’s writer, Fessenden, who asked Ehrlich to comment on the results before the story was published. Somehow Ehrlich’s overwhelming criticisms were left out of the article.
Ehrlich also referred Fessenden to some professors who produced the recently released Emory study. Emory Economics department head, Prof. Deshbakhsh “says he was contacted by Fessenden, and he indicated to the Times reporter that the study suggested a very strong deterrent effect of capital punishment.” Somehow,
Fessenden’s left that out of the Times story, as well. (5).
There is a constant within all jurisdictions — negative consequences will always have an effect on behavior.
copyright 2000-2004 Dudley Sharp
1)  “States With No Death Penalty Share Lower Homicide Rates”,  The New
York Times 9/22/00   located at

2) “Don’t Know Much About Calculus: The (New York) Times flunks high-school
math in death-penalty piece”, William Tucker, National Review, 9/22/00, located

3) ibid, see footnote 11
4) “The Death Penalty Saves Lives”, AIM Report, August 2000, located at
15) “NEW YORK TIMES UNDER FIRE AGAIN”, Accuracy in Media,  10/16/00, go to
Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
e-mail,  713-622-5491,
Houston, Texas

Pro death penalty sites

My focus has been on violent crime issues and what can be done, within the criminal justice and legislative systems, to lessen injury to the innocent and to prosecute the guilty.  To accomplish that goal, involvement in community education, elections, legislation, victim’s rights issues, including assistance in individual cases are all important.

5 thoughts on “Death Penalty, Deterrence and Deception

  • August 28, 2009 at 4:25 am

    I am in favour of the death penalty. My only objection is the fear of executing an innocent party. (This ought to be a fear of all proponents of the penalty, which is why the penalty is reserved for the most heinous acts committed with evidence provided beyond doubt.)

    I think it is a strong deterrent and wish my home country (UK) would reinstate it and stiffer custodial sentences especially due to the significant increases in senseless crime recently.

    I have been following the Christian & Newsom trials and I can think of few cases that merit the penalty more.

    I think the problems with a lot of these so called “scientific” studies, and I use the term loosely because I have strict convictions on what real science is (I am a physical scientist), is that people will use the statistics to prove their own agenda rather than an impartial look at the facts. Real science is where folks gather all the facts, within capable reason, and figures, sit down and work it out, whatever the outcome. Unfortunately in this day and age, the conclusion (or desired conclusion) drives the direction of research and often results in misleading scientific methodology and thus misrepresentation of the facts.

  • September 21, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    Being skeptical of studies, even those in physical science, is prudent.

    If I recall correctly, all of the economists, from the 16 recent studies, finding for death penalty deterrence, all caution the readers regarding their findings.


    Here is a reply from 2 of the economists, who responded to criticsm of their work.

    Here is my recent reply to criticism of the deterrence studies.

    Deterrence and the Death Penalty: A Reply to Radelet and Lacock

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