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Studies suggest death penalty is deterrent to crime, Land says

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The news that outgoing Illinois Gov. George Ryan had commuted the sentence of every death row prisoner in Illinois got the attention of Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land during his weekly call-in radio program Jan. 11.

A day earlier, Ryan, who declared a moratorium on executions in the state in 2000, also pardoned four men who had received death sentences. He said they had given false confessions after reportedly being tortured while in police custody. Most of the 167 inmates whose sentences were commuted by Ryan will now serve life without parole.

“There is compelling academic evidence that capital punishment has a deterrent effect in saving people’s lives who otherwise would be murdered,” said Land on his Saturday afternoon program, “Richard Land Live!” The nationally syndicated program is a caller-driven talk program airing each Saturday from noon to 3 p.m. Eastern over the Salem Radio Network and on the Internet at www.richardlandlive.com.

Citing a January 2002 study, “Does Capital Punishment Have a Deterrent Effect?” by Emory University researchers, Land said empirical data indicated murder rates fell in areas of the country where capital punishment has been imposed. The statistical analysis used data from 3,054 U.S. counties from 1977-96 and attempted to predict the number of homicides for each county while demonstrating the effect of executions on the actual number of murders.

The results suggested the “legal change allowing executions beginning in 1977 has been associated with significant reductions in homicides,” Land said, reading from the 35-page research report. The study also notes that an “increase in any of the three probabilities of arrest, sentencing, or execution tends to reduce the crime rate.”

“Most people know intuitively that perpetrators, unless they are criminally insane, don’t want to be executed,” said Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “If they are living in a state that has the death penalty, they are going to be thinking about that possibility.”

Robert Blecker, a professor at New York Law School and a death penalty supporter, said in a Jan. 7 USA Today article that studies at the University of Houston and the University of Colorado at Denver corroborate the Emory study.

“They [murderers] are cognizant of whether they are operating in a death penalty state before they pull the trigger,” Blecker said in the article. “They’re operating in the real world, not the realm of political theory.”

Land said the Emory researchers conservatively estimated that for every offender executed, the lives of an average of 18 potential victims are saved.

Gov. Ryan, in commuting the death sentences, said the death penalty issue is “one of the great civil rights struggles of our time” and that he had to act because the “system is haunted by the demon of error — error in determining guilt and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die.”

Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson weighed in on the announcement, praising Ryan for ending “legal lynching” in Illinois and expressing support for plans to nominate the Illinois Republican for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet Ryan’s sweeping pronouncement failed to dissipate the ethical cloud hovering over him as he leaves the Illinois governor’s mansion. A four-year federal political corruption investigation centering on Ryan and others while he was the state’s secretary of state continues to expand, with federal prosecutors most recently suggesting Ryan was aware of the shredding of campaign documents that would have been evidence of wrongdoing.

Land, on his broadcast, said, “If we are going to be committed to the use of the death penalty, we need to be as committed to its more equitable and just application.”

He said he understands the concern about the possibility of condemning and executing an innocent person, noting, “We must do everything we can to ensure that justice is served.”

Death penalty opponents allege the 100-plus people moved off death rows in U.S. prisons over the past 30 years prove that “innocent” people are being sentenced to death. Roughly a third of those released were proven innocent of the capital crime they had been convicted of, and the remainder benefited from legal technicalities that had nothing to do with their guilt or innocence — a fact affirmed by Ryan’s own Commission on Capital Punishment, Land explained.

“Death penalty opponents say if we do away with the death penalty, fewer innocent people will die. But statistics show that in states without the death penalty, more innocent people may die — the victims,” he said.

“Swift and sure justice would offer even greater deterrent to capital crimes,” Land said, noting that death row prisoners often avoid execution through years of appeals and, sometimes, frivolous legal wrangling.

“One of the reasons God instituted civil government was to mete out justice against people who injure or take the life of another human being in a wanton and premeditated way,” Land said. The Bible’s teaching on capital punishment is clear, he added.

“I believe in capital punishment because I believe the Bible teaches that capital punishment is biblical,” Land said, citing Romans 13, which he said provides an important outline of the role of the civil magistrate in these matters.

Men and women, boys and girls are made in the image of God, he said. “When you take another human being’s life, you have imposed upon and invaded a prerogative that only God has.”
The Emory study can be viewed at https://userwww.service.emory.edu/~cozden/dezhbakhsh_01_01_cover.html.

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  • Dwayne Hastings