Yes, It’s Eth­i­cal and Ef­fec­tive

The Washington Post Sunday - - Close To Home - — Eric Rozen­man Fair­fax The writer is a Wash­ing­ton-based news me­dia an­a­lyst. His e-mail ad­dress is el­rozen­man@hot­mail.com.

Across the coun­try, sup­port for the death penalty has dropped from 80 per­cent to 65 per­cent in the past decade. Mary­land Gov. Martin O’Mal­ley (D) re­cently as­serted that “the facts are on the side of those” who say the state’s death penalty does not de­ter mur­der.

Re­ally? Re­tired Bri­tish prison psy­chi­a­trist Theodore Dalrymple has pointed out that af­ter Bri­tain abol­ished cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment in 1965, its homi­cide rate dou­bled. The types of killings that once would have led to the death penalty, such as mur­ders by those on pa­role for lesser crimes, “in­creased dis­pro­por­tion­ately.” Fur­ther, im­proved trauma medicine has re­duced fa­tal­i­ties from vi­o­lence by up to four­fifths. So, Dalrymple has said, in ef­fect “the rate of homi­ci­dal vi­o­lence has in­creased by up to 10 times.”

Mary­land has ex­e­cuted five con­victed mur­der­ers since the Supreme Court re­in­stated the death penalty in 1976. In 2005, the state recorded 522 mur­ders. With a pop­u­la­tion of 5.6 mil­lion, that meant a homi­cide rate of 9.9 per 100,000 peo­ple.

Vir­ginia has ex­e­cuted 98 con­victed mur­der­ers since 1976. In 2005, it recorded 461 homi­cides in a pop­u­la­tion of 7.6 mil­lion, 6.1 per 100,000 — nearly 40 per­cent lower than Mary­land’s.

The Dis­trict of Columbia has no death penalty. Its last ex­e­cu­tion oc­curred in 1957. In 2005, the Dis­trict en­dured 195 mur­ders, 35.4 per 100,000, a rate more than five times higher than Vir­ginia’s.

It seems pre­ma­ture, at least, to in­sist that the pos­si­bil­ity of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment has no ef­fect on pub­lic safety. And de­ter­rence does not have to mean ab­so­lute pre­ven­tion. Even a 10 per­cent de­crease in Mary­land’s homi­cide rate, for in­stance, would save more than four dozen lives an­nu­ally.

De­spite what some op­po­nents say, cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment is not a eu­phemism for state-sanc­tioned mur­der. Eth­i­cally, mur­der and ex­e­cu­tion are antonyms, not syn­onyms, based on the orig­i­nal He­brew sense of the Sixth Com­mand­ment, which is “thou shall not mur­der” and not the of­ten­mis­trans­lated “thou shall not kill.”

As Supreme Court Jus­tice Pot­ter Ste­wart once ex­plained, “in part, cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment is an ex­pres­sion of so­ci­ety’s moral out­rage at par­tic­u­larly of­fen­sive con­duct. This func­tion may be un­ap­peal­ing to many, but it is es­sen­tial in an or­dered so­ci­ety that asks its cit­i­zens to rely on le­gal pro­cesses rather than self-help to vin­di­cate their wrongs . . .”

But “guilty be­yond a rea­son­able doubt” leaves the pos­si­bil­ity of ex­e­cut­ing some­one wrongly con­victed, some ar­gue. Should not life im­pris­on­ment be pre­ferred? Two ex­am­ples sug­gest the an­swer is no. In 2005, Ger­many freed Mo­hammed Ali Ha­madi af­ter the ter­ror­ist had served 18 years for mur­der­ing Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem. Press re­ports said that “a life sen­tence in Ger­many ranges be­tween 20 and 25 years, with the pos­si­bil­ity of pa­role af­ter 15 years.”

When Cal­i­for­nia ex­e­cuted Clarence Ray Allen, 76, last year, it wasn’t for the 1974 mur­der he’d ar­ranged, but the 1980 triple killing he in­sti­gated from be­hind bars.

Jus­tice de­mands eq­uity, as much as pos­si­ble. In some mur­der cases, that means the death penalty.

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