When New Jersey’s Democratic legislature and governor abolished capital punishment in that state in December 2007, one might have expected some discussion of what this would mean for future murder victims. Had any concern about the impairment of deterrence crossed the minds of the region’s journalists, a headline such as this one might have appeared. But liberal journalists long ago passed into a p.c. coma, so such sentiments were expressed only by their readers. One reader’s post on the Daily News web site reads: “What about when a 1st degree murderer serving life without parole kills a prison guard, as happened in NYS several years ago? What will the morons who make laws do then, give the murderer more life without parole? …  Way to go, morons.”


Three Headlines

 When it comes to crime, capital punishment and deterrence, liberals never connect the dots


By Karl Spence

Osama bin Laden’s jihadists killed 3,000 Americans in a single morning. But they can only dream of doing us the harm our own home-grown murderers are inflicting on us, year in and year out. And whereas in the wake of 9/11 much anger was directed at those in the U.S. government who had failed to foil Osama’s plot, today a much more costly failure of intelligence is going unremarked and unrebuked.

Consider these three news items:

● “Does Death Penalty Save Lives? A New Debate,” The New York Times, November 18, 2007 — “For the first time in a generation, the question of whether the death penalty deters murders has captured the attention of scholars in law and economics, setting off an intense new debate about one of the central justifications for capital punishment. According to roughly a dozen recent studies, executions save lives. For each inmate put to death, the studies say, 3 to 18 murders are prevented. The effect is most pronounced, according to some studies, in Texas and other states that execute condemned inmates relatively often and relatively quickly.”

● “N.J. abolishes the death penalty,” New York Daily News, December 17, 2007 — “Gov. John Corzine on Monday signed a bill doing away with the death penalty, making New Jersey the first state in more than four decades to abolish capital punishment. The bill, approved last week by the state’s Assembly and Senate, replaces the death sentence with life in prison without parole. ‘This is a day of progress for us and for the millions of people across our nation and around the globe who reject the death penalty as a moral or practical response to the grievous, even heinous, crime of murder,’ Corzine, a first-term Democrat, said during a bill-signing at the statehouse in Trenton.”

● “In Camden (N.J.), a puzzling increase in homicides,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 30, 2007.

Stop right there. What’s to puzzle about? Can no one here connect the dots?

For many years now, evidence has been accumulating that capital punishment has a strong deterrent effect when executions are actually carried out. The trend of research has become so pronounced that even The New York Times felt obliged, “for the first time in a generation,” to take notice of it. But it seems the Times story sank immediately into a p.c. memory hole. When, only a month later, New Jersey’s Democrats abolished their state’s death penalty, no one, neither in liberal officialdom nor in the mainstream news media, raised any objection. No one expressed any concern about the impairment of deterrence and the cost in innocent lives this would inevitably exact. They might just as well have all joined together and said to future murder victims: “Drop dead.”

What’s truly puzzling is that conservatives are not making an issue of this. Think of it: Thousands of the Americans who are being murdered each year — perhaps most of them — are dying in crimes that could have been deterred by a death penalty made credible and effective through reforms that are nowhere on the horizon. It’s as if another 9/11 were happening every few months — and hardly anyone is talking about it. The only presidential candidate who’s even mentioned the death penalty is Fred Thompson (see his June 27, 2007, radio commentary, “Common Sense on Capital Punishment”) — but Fred didn’t make the point a theme of his campaign. He might have done better if he had.

Conservatives are acting as if the Great Crime Wave is over, but that's far from true. The crime rate in America remains more than twice what it was when I was a boy; violent crime remains even higher. The only major crime category that's anywhere near returning to the comparatively low rates of the 1950s and early 1960s is murder, and that's only because emergency medical crews are saving more lives now than they once could do. Each victim saved in ER reduces a murder to an aggravated assault. Aggravated assault, accordingly, remains more than three times its 1960 rate.

I believe a really hard campaign against crime, if carried through to victory, would destroy liberalism's power for a generation or more. Specifically, actual enforcement of the death penalty, to the point that thousands instead of dozens of killers are put to death for their crimes, has the potential to break apart the entire culture of gangsterism, cowing not only murderers but also the robbers and rapists who rely on the threat of murder — and thus making today's crime rates a thing of memory. And in the peace that followed, people would never forget nor forgive liberalism for the fact that the mayhem they'd suffered for decades had been indulged, shepherded and enabled by liberal dogmas. 

Is such a change really possible? Let’s take a closer look at the evidence for deterrence. It starts from a negative: Merely having capital punishment on the books is not enough to produce a measurable deterrent effect. That’s the conclusion of a famous 1959 study by sociologist Thorsten Sellin, who compared murder rates in death-penalty states to those in similar states where the penalty had been abolished, and found no deterrence.

Sellin himself admitted that his study told nothing about the deterrent effect of a death penalty that was actually enforced, as opposed to what were little more than paper penalties. He observed: “Death is still the legal punishment for murder in Belgium, but it has, except for one ‘accident’ so to speak and after World War II against collaborators with the enemy, never been applied since 1863. Under such circumstances even the knowledge that persons are still arrested and prosecuted for murder and even sentenced to death in Belgium would contain no threat of death to potential murderers in that country. We arrive then at the conclusion that if the death penalty is to have any restraining effect there must be an adequate threat of execution, but no one has ventured to calculate how great the risk of possible execution must be in order to constitute an adequate threat.”

Sellin then examined the death penalty in America since 1920 — an era in which the chance of a murderer’s actually being executed was scarcely 1 in 100 — and concluded: “The death penalty, as we use it, exercises no influence on the extent or fluctuating rates of capital crimes. It has failed as a deterrent.” (Sellin, The Death Penalty, pp. 20-63.)

Left unexplored was that mysterious question of what degree of enforcement might pose “an adequate threat of execution.” Nevertheless, Sellin’s study greatly empowered the drive in the 1960s to abolish capital punishment, and it forms the basis for the conventional wisdom that death does not deter, a counterintuitive dogma that’s been assiduously cultivated by liberals ever since. But then a set of circumstances arose that liberals have done their best to ignore: While executions waned, homicide waxed — and vice versa.

In 1960, 56 executions were carried out in the United States. That figure was driven down to only one or two a year from the late 60s through the early 80s, with a 10-year interval, from mid-1967 to late 1977, that saw no executions at all. Ah, progress! Unfortunately, the murder rate in the meantime doubled, from 5.1 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1960 to 10.2 in 1980. Murder thereafter fluctuated, peaking again at 9.5 in 1991. Meanwhile, aggravated assault, boosted by the same medical advances that retarded the murder rate, more than quintupled. Progress, huh? Yeah, right. Then, in the 1990s, these disastrous trends went into reverse: With executions rising to a post-moratorium high of 98 in 1999, the murder rate receded to within a few points of its 1960 level, and aggravated assault receded in tandem. Since 2000, the execution rate has subsided again, to 42 in 2007. The murder rate, meanwhile, has ceased its decline, hovering around 5.6 the last few years.

Researchers who, beginning in the mid-70s, have found a deterrent effect in this picture did so by factoring out other variables — demographics, economic conditions, likelihood of arrest, length of incarceration, etc. — which also affect the murder rate. Their results? Many lives are saved by each execution carried out. Critics protest that the facts are unclear, the methodology flawed, the truth uncertain. What those critics don’t realize is that the burden of proof rests not with those who affirm deterrence but with those who deny it.

If a reasonable possibility exists that executions actually carried out will deter some murders, then the people put at risk by our failure to enforce the death penalty far outnumber the questionably convicted or otherwise disadvantaged death row inmates who are the focus of so much concern today. The ones put at risk are the hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children who will fall victim to criminal violence tomorrow, next year and on into the future. If death penalty opponents are mistaken in denying deterrence, then their interference is itself a death sentence for those victims who would have lived, had they been protected by a credible — meaning swift and certain — death penalty.

Karl Spence is the author of Yo! Liberals! You Call This Progress?, from which parts of this essay were drawn.

Deadly Mercy


Crusaders against capital punishment

are killing people with kindness

Suppose you yourself had to decide whether convicted murderers live or die. You don’t have to be governor for that to happen. You might be called to serve as juror in a capital murder case, or you might vote in an election in which capital punishment has become an issue.

You want to save innocent lives. What do you do?

According to promoters of the National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty, the safe answer is to spare the killer. At their inaugural session in 1998, they said that of the nearly 4,000 Americans sentenced to death in this generation, 75 have been released from death row after their convictions were reversed. (The figure has since been updated to well over a hundred.) Had those executions been carried out, they argued, that many innocent lives would have been lost.

Those lives “speak to the emotional, human side” of the death penalty debate “as opposed to the intellectual side,” said Professor Lawrence Marshall, organizer of the conference, held at Northwestern University in Chicago.

The horror of being condemned for a crime you didn’t commit is undeniable. But Marshall didn’t say how many of the people sprung from death row were truly exonerated and how many were simply let off on technicalities (as most of them in fact were). Even if a great many of them are truly innocent, other questions remain.

How many innocent lives would have been lost if not for the death penalty? And when executions aren’t carried out, how many lives are put at risk? How many prison inmates have been killed by murderers not sent to death row? How many people on the outside have been killed on the orders of gang leaders imprisoned for murder? And how many innocent Americans have been killed by court-freed killers?

For a look at “the emotional, human side” of that last question, consider Kenneth Allen McDuff. His case shows that to err on the side of mercy can be fatal, too.

McDuff, who in 1964 had raped a woman, cut her throat and left her for dead, first went to prison for several counts of burglary in 1965, when he was 18. Sentenced to a total of 52 years in prison, he was paroled in less than a year.

Eight months later, he and a callow sidekick named Roy Dale Green (to whom he’d bragged of having already committed several rape-murders) kidnapped Edna Sullivan, 16, Robert Brand, 17, and Mark Dunnam, 15, from a sandlot ball field in Fort Worth, Texas. Forcing them into the trunk of their car, he drove it out into nearby Falls County, where he shot the boys in the face several times each, then raped the girl, had his friend rape her, raped her again, and finally threw her down and pressed a stick against her throat until her neck broke.

Green ratted on McDuff the next day, testified at his trial and served five years for his part in the crimes. McDuff, saved from the electric chair in 1972 by the Supreme Court, became eligible for parole in 1976. He should never have been freed. But with Texas under a federal court order to ease prison crowding, McDuff eventually was released. He won his parole, after many refusals, in 1989.

The day McDuff walked, Falls County Sheriff Larry Pamplin told fellow lawmen, “I don’t know if it’ll be next week or next month or next year, but one of these days, dead girls are gonna start turning up, and when that happens, the man you need to look for is Kenneth McDuff.”

Three days later, the first “dead girl” turned up: Sarafia Parker, 29, found in a field in Temple, Texas, the town to which McDuff had been paroled.

He was somewhat kinder to a young woman named Theresa, his daughter by the woman he’d attacked in 1964. She contacted him in prison after being told of him on reaching 21. As Texas Monthly writer Gary Cartwright reported in 1992, “after his parole, he offered to take her to Las Vegas and be her pimp. … Theresa has moved out of state, as far from Kenneth McDuff as possible.”

In 1990, McDuff was arrested for making a terroristic threat to a black teenager, but because the victim was too frightened to press the misdemeanor charge, McDuff’s parole was not revoked. In 1991, McDuff enrolled in Texas State Technical College in Waco. “In the months that followed,” Cartwright wrote, “several Waco-area prostitutes were reported missing, a fact that didn’t appear to alarm Waco police or prompt them to ask hard questions of McDuff” — even after he sped through a police checkpoint with a screaming woman in his truck. “He seemed to be living a charmed life; he beat up and nearly blinded a fellow student at TSTC and threatened several others, and still nobody reported him to the police.”

Finally, McDuff was nailed for two abductions and murders.

On Dec. 29, 1991, Colleen Reed, a 29-year-old accountant, disappeared from an Austin car wash. Her bones weren’t found until 1998; McDuff was convicted of her murder on the testimony of Alva Hank Worley, like Roy Green in 1966 a compliant accomplice. Worley told how Reed cried, “Please, not me,” when McDuff grabbed her, how they took turns raping her on the way out of town, and how McDuff asked to borrow a shovel as he dropped Worley off at his house, saying, “I’m going to use her up.”

On March 1, 1992, McDuff abducted Melissa Ann Northrup, a 22-year-old pregnant mother of two, from the Waco convenience store where she worked. Her body was found two months later in a gravel pit near Dallas. This case got McDuff on “America’s Most Wanted,” which led to his arrest and trial in both the Northrup and Reed deaths.

The Waco paper reported that in closing arguments, McDuff’s defense attorneys “likened the trial to the Salem witch trials and the Red-scare era of Sen. Joseph McCarthy” and “compared the jury to Pontius Pilate, who caved into public demand and sentenced Jesus Christ to death.”

The jurors weren’t buying. They found McDuff guilty and returned him to death row. In 1998, the state of Texas executed Kenneth McDuff for the Reed and Northrup murders, more than 30 years after he first shed innocent blood. His death closed the books on more than a dozen other slayings committed while he was on parole.

McDuff, at his death, was believed to be the only killer to visit death row twice. But the vast majority of murderers never see death row. His example, though worse than most, can be multiplied many times. The number of Americans killed just by paroled killers far exceeds the Chicago conference’s 75 “innocent” ex-cons.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that in 2002, 280 of the more than 3,500 murderers then on death row had prior homicide convictions. In the 1980s, the bureau tracked paroled killers and found that 7 percent of them — more than 220 of each year’s cohort — had been rearrested for homicide within three years of their release from prison. A decade later, a BJS study found a recidivism rate for homicide of only 1.2 percent. About 6,700 killers were paroled in 2002. Even at the lower of the previously recorded rates, more than 75 of them will have taken another life by now — and that’s just a single cohort’s worth of state-enabled mayhem.

Those who seek to confound enforcement of the death penalty don’t concern themselves very much with cases like McDuff’s. Nor do they examine the evidence supporting capital punishment’s deterrent effect, as they would if their true purpose were protecting the innocent. As Thomas Sowell has pointed out (in The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy), the goal such people keep before them is not to save lives or perform any good deed for its own sake. Rather, they seek the undisturbed cultivation of their sense of moral superiority.

It’s long past time our criminal justice system stopped catering to such whims.

The foregoing is an excerpt from Yo! Liberals! You Call This Progress?, by Karl Spence. Yo! Liberals! is available at amazon.com or directly from the publisher.

Return to homepage


Copyright © 2008 by Karl Spence. All rights reserved.
Revised: 10/24/11 21:35:08 -0500.