An article in yesterday’s New York Times (http://www.iht.com/articles/2009/02/25/america/25death.php) reports how US lawmakers are increasingly looking to the argument that capital punishment is a very costly means of law enforcement. One who is arguing for its abolition on this basis, according to the report, is Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, to whom the National University of Ireland, Galway awarded an honorary doctorate last June.
Because of the complex and often unending procedural issues involved in death penalty litigation, it is a very expensive process. The cost argument becomes more attractive in tough times. The article reports a death penalty supporter arguing that it is impossible to measure the social benefit of those who have been deterred from killing because of the death penalty. But this is a very weak argument, because of the poor evidence showing that capital punishment has a deterrent effect that is superior to that of long-term imprisonment.
Maryland in fact provides a good example of this. Do you recall the famous 'belt-way snipers' from several years ago. This was a strange team of serial killers who murdered people at random in and around Washington. They were called the 'belt-way snipers' because the killings all took place within a few kilometers of the belt-way, which is the ring road around Washington.
Now, Washington has no death penalty, whereas Maryland and Virginia do. Would you be surprised to learn that virtually all of the killilngs took place in Maryland and Virginia, and not Washington? If the death penalty is such a deterrent, why didn't these two mad serial killers simply drive a few kilometers in the other direction and put themselves outside the threat of execution?