USA Today, December 11, 2005
Capital punishment is an extreme sanction that is properly reserved for the worst of the worst: the Ted Bundys, the John Wayne Gacys, the Timothy McVeighs. Yet few people can recall the name of a single murder victim. The fact that one in 500 murderers receives the death penalty underlines the appropriate rarity with which it is used.
Over the past decade, the violent crime rate — and, more significant, the rate of murder — has dropped dramatically. Several recent academic studies show a clear deterrent effect from judicious use of this extreme sanction. The goal should not be abolition but greater discrimination in its use.
A consistent majority of Americans, from blue states and red, Democrats and Republicans, support the availability of capital punishment. While there is a valid moral argument against it, claims that it is racist and that killers get lousy lawyers are largely urban myths. While a black man is seven times more likely to be murdered than a white man, almost twice as many whites are executed. Many states, such as Oregon, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars defending each killer charged with capital murder.
Some claim life without parole is an adequate substitute. What they fail to note are the people, both inside and outside prison, who die at the hands of convicted murderers. Nor do they seem to comprehend that the only reason many terrible murders are resolved with a plea to a "true life sentence" is the specter of a possible death sentence.
Opponents claim the death penalty is arbitrary. So is homicide. Thus, each case must be examined individually, first by a prosecutor, then by a jury in two phases, then by more than a decade (on average) of appeals.
We all agree: 10 guilty men should go free to prevent one innocent from being wrongly convicted. But how about 10,000 guilty, or 100,000, going free? How many victims become too many? What do we say to the victims of killers like Kenneth McDuff, Robert Massie or Carl Cletus Bowles, all murderers doing life who got out and killed again?