Jewish World Review Dec. 20, 2002 / 15 Teves, 5763

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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Consumer Reports

The death penalty by the numbers

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | This week 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.

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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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