Perry and the Death Penalty

Conservatives watching the Republican presidential debates have been grousing about the liberal bias of the journalists moderating the events. Occasionally, however, that bias can play into conservatives’ hands.

That’s what happened at last month’s MSNBC debate, when moderator Brian Williams invited Texas Gov. Rick Perry to take up the very issue that gave Republicans their last landslide presidential victory: capital punishment.

Here is the question Williams posed to Perry: “Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?”

In the liberal mind, that is a perfect “gotcha” question. It’s more than just an attempt to embarrass Perry. It sought to shame him, the way Nathan  shamed King David, or Welch shamed McCarthy.

But Williams had hardly said “234” when the audience erupted in applause. And Perry, too, was unabashed. “No, sir,” he replied. “I’ve never struggled with that at all. … When someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States, if that’s required. But in the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, … you will be executed.”

More applause. So Williams tried again, this time inducting the audience into his Hall of Shame. “What,” he asked, “do you make of that dynamic that just happened here, the mention of the execution of 234 people drew applause?”

Perry said: “I think Americans understand justice. I think Americans are clearly, in the vast majority of cases, supportive of capital punishment.”

It was a good answer: tough, no-nonsense, and very much in tune with  public opinion. But while Perry did himself credit with his response, he also missed an opportunity. The vast majority of Americans do support capital punishment. But in the vast majority of cases, it’s capital  punishment’s opponents who get their way. And the consequences of that are deadly.

Williams’ question assumed that whereas enforcing the death penalty runs the risk of executing an innocent man, not enforcing it poses no risk to innocent lives at all. Perry didn’t challenge that assumption, and he should have.

He ought to have acquainted Williams with the fact that capital punishment has been shown to be a powerful deterrent when — and only when — it is actually enforced. Research to that effect has been accumulating since 1975, when New York economist Isaac Ehrlich
estimated eight murders deterred for each murderer put to death. Other studies put the number at more than twice that. Though it never has dispelled the conventional wisdom that death is no deterrent, this research in 2007 gained the momentary attention of The New York Times, which reported with amazement that “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.” [1]

Perry has more reason than most to be aware of all this. In the same years his home state was becoming notorious as Death Row Central, its murder rate plunged by almost two-thirds. That’s three times the reduction then seen in states with no death penalty. Truly a statistic to brag about. [2]

Williams can be forgiven for ignoring the science on deterrence. After all, that’s what liberals do. They ignore everything that doesn’t fit their agenda. But Perry really ought to bone up on it. For the upshot is this: Innocent people’s lives are being thrown away every time a murderer’s life is spared.

Perry might have pointed out that 234 executions is not such a big number when compared to the more than 14,000 murders not punished by death that Texans have suffered while he’s been governor. If anything should be costing him sleepless nights, that should. How many of those murders were so understandable, so excusable, that it’s right and just for the murderer to live while his victim lies cold in the ground? Some of them? Most of them? All of them? How many of them would even have happened if death for murder were the rule in Texas, rather than the extremely rare exception?

Perry could plead in his defense that the rules imposed on capital prosecutions by the Supreme Court don’t allow most murders to be punished by death. He could argue that those rules are not found in the Constitution, that they were simply invented by the Court, with no one else having any say in the matter. He’d be right, too. But that begs the question: Why isn’t he raising holy hell about it? [3]

Everyone in the Republican presidential field understands about how interference from Washington is costing Americans their jobs. As governor of Texas, Perry is uniquely positioned to make the case that it’s also costing Americans their lives.

When he first entered the race, the rap on Perry was that his Texas prosperity story is undermined by his hard line on social issues. He soon ran into trouble, however, by taking a soft line on illegal immigration. This has cost him the support of those who apparently think the way to uphold the rule of law in America is to deport millions of Mexicans. Perry could tell those people what Moses told Israel: “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.” That might not win him back the “Mexicans get out” crowd, but none could question Perry’s hard-line credentials if he also pointed out that a better way of upholding the rule of law is to hang thousands of murderers. Quoting Moses again: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” [4]

Capital punishment is the one social issue on which the vast majority of Americans are utterly estranged from the liberal point of view. If Perry wants to turn this issue to his advantage, if he wants to drive Barack Obama out of office with it, then he should pick a fight with liberals over the death penalty and deterrence. Once he — or any Republican nominee — drives home to the public that rigorous enforcement of the death penalty could quickly reduce the murderers among us to a small core  of undeterrables, then popular support for capital punishment, already strong, will rise to a clamor. And that clamor could send the Democrats into a Dukakis tailspin — truly their worst nightmare.

Karl Spence is author of  Yo! Liberals! You Call This Progress? His work has appeared in the Chattanooga Free Press, American Thinker and National Review.

1. For more on the death penalty and deterrence, including documentation of sources, go here, here and here (at Notes 18 and 23).

2. Data on murders and executions in Texas and other states may be found here and here. Annual executions in Texas increased (after an 18-year moratorium) from a single one in 1982 to a high-water mark of 40 in 2000. The interval in which Texas cut its murder rate by 63 percent while jurisdictions without capital punishment cut theirs by only 21 percent is 1982-2002.

3. For an authoritative work on capital punishment’s constitutionality, see Raoul Berger, Death Penalties: The Supreme Court’s Obstacle Course (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982).

4. For an answer to those who would hold such a policy to be un-Christian or uncivilized, go here and here (from Note 12 to Note 21).



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