Opinion: The death penalty should be revived

By Richard E. Vatz

Immediately following the despicable, murderous attack on the innocent victims at the Capital Gazette newsroom, I made a contribution to Help Capital Gazette Journalists on GoFundMe.  Then I made one of my rare sojourns to Facebook, wherein I complained about the elimination of the death penalty in Maryland.

The civil responses I received – all responses were civil, for whatever that implies – generally supported the death penalty on the basis of the symbolic assurance it communicates to citizens that their government wishes to protect them or opposed it on the bases that it is applied discriminatorily against non-whites, and it does not serve as a deterrent.

I responded in short order that “I always say to those who claim racial disparities that the answer to that is to employ capital punishment against more white miscreants.” Incidentally, capital punishment sentences have been shown to exist among the murderers of whites vs. blacks, but not clearly among the race differences of the perpetrators,

All sides in the debate over capital punishment claim to “know,” as one of my correspondents claimed, that death penalty is or is not a deterrent.  For it to be a deterrent for capital crime, murderers would have to think that they might be caught and that the venue in which they are caught will effect the ultimate punishment.

Further, they need to be convinced that such a penalty is not infinitely delayable.  In states that it takes a decade or more from conviction to execution and/or those in which capital punishment is rare to nonexistent, there can be no deterrent from the death penalty.

Deterence data from Texas

In Texas, the one state that employs capital punishment with some dispatch and regularity, its ABC news affiliate reported in 2010, “As many as 60 people may be alive today in Texas because two dozen convicted killers were executed last year in the nation’s most active capital punishment state, according to a study of death penalty deterrence by researchers from Sam Houston State University and Duke University. A review of executions and homicides in Texas by criminologist Raymond Teske at Sam Houston in Huntsville and Duke sociologists Kenneth Land and Hui Zheng concludes a monthly decline of between 0.5 to 2.5 homicides in Texas follows each execution.”

In Maryland, according the Death Penalty Information Center, “In 2009, after nearly passing abolition legislation, Maryland instituted the tightest death penalty restrictions in the country. The law limit[ed] capital cases to those with biological or DNA evidence of guilt, a videotaped confession, or a videotape linking the defendant to a homicide.”

But in 2013, all deterrence of execution was eliminated.  There cannot be a deterrent in Maryland since the General Assembly, in its ideological zeal to eliminate even the possibility of the death penalty, stopped the sentencing to death of criminals who satisfied these rigorous criteria, criteria that virtually eliminate errors.  The standard of proof could also be raised to “beyond a doubt” from “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Minority view

Three-and-a-half years ago, I wrote in The Baltimore Sun with Scott Shellenberger, the Baltimore County State’s Attorney and author of the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment Minority Report, that it was irresponsible not even to allow Maryland to have the option of executing a serial murderer.

[The Minority Report of the Commission is not listed in its index, but only as a footnote. It occurs on unnumbered pages below page 128, and was signed by eight members of commission mostly from law enforcement and the judiciary.]

We cited the possibility of “crimes wherein children or other innocents are targeted.”  Half of that warning has been satisfied.  Are we going to wait until the other half is?

Shellenberger and I also referenced the efforts by the late Baltimore Sun writer Gregory Kane, who warned about “inmate hit lists” of lifers who continue to threaten and kill witnesses, inmates and prison guards.

At least return the possibility of the death penalty to Maryland to add a modicum of protection to its innocent citizens and its vulnerable youth.

The murderer of the wonderful Capital Gazette news people will be able to live out a long life, threatening innocents from incarceration.

Let us make that more difficult for the next miserable mass murderer.

 Richard E. Vatz is professor of political rhetoric at Towson University and is author of The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion: the Agenda-Spin Model.