Speaking of Crazy: Fred Thompson Weighs In

So it turns out Fred Thompson actually is a lawyer (he doesn’t just play one on TV), but apparently that doesn’t mean that he has any real understanding of the machinations of the nation’s capital punishment system. In a recent podcast, Thompson declares that Americans usually get things right, and sites the few recent studies that purport to find that the death penalty deters murder (apparently anywhere from 3 to 18 murders per execution – how many? can a range that wide really mean anything? I guess that doesn’t matter).

Thompson rather mockingly refers to the “self-proclaimed smart kids” who have always said that the death penalty doesn’t deter murder and then says that “most studies” now find that the death penalty does protect innocent lives. Now the simple facts are that only a few studies have claimed to demonstrate any such thing, and close review and scrutiny in the academic community have debunked those few (check out a terrific summation of this work here). Also, I’d like to point out that while apparently in Thompson’s view academics deserve only to be mocked when they are arguing against capital punishment, their findings seem to deserve the greatest weight when they support the state taking life.

Now, I am not an academic. I have a plain old bachelor’s degree, and that’s probably all I’ll ever get. I’ll certainly never go to law school or be an assistant U.S. Attorney, but I’ve got eyes and common sense, so instead of throwing bunches of independent variables into complex equations that no one who isn’t an academic can understand (which is what the Emory econometric studies that Thompson so reverently refers to do) let’s look at basic common sense.

If the death penalty deterred crime, there would be no murders in Texas! Texas has executed nearly 400 people in the past 25 years, and it does it quickly. Yet Texas’s murder rate remains high, while that of New York (which has not carried out an execution in the modern era) remains low. In fact, 11 of the 13 states that do not have the death penalty on the books have murder rates below the national average. When the death penalty was reinstated in 1972, murder rates were falling, but even as we ramped back up the machinery of death, in the 1980s and 1990s, the murder rate continued to increase. State by state studies similarly show that there is no drop in the murder rate after a state returns to executions, nor is there an increase after a state ends its use of the death penalty.

In other words, the common sense facts don’t support Thompson’s assertions. In this case, the “self-proclaimed smart kids” are free market economists who design theoretical models to show that the death penalty deters crime, when any sensible person, looking at the facts in front of their eyes knows that this is not true. In fact, when certain variables are adjusted and accounted for in one of these studies, the new equation shows that an execution causes 3 more murders!

We need to have a serious debate about the death penalty in America, but even the majority of Americans don’t believe that the death penalty deters other murderers. As a potential presidential candidate, Fred Thompson owes us a deeper and more honest analysis.

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