States With No Death Penalty Share Lower
By RAYMOND BONNER and FORD
New York Times, September 22, 2000, pp. 1 and
The dozen states that have chosen not to enact the
death penalty since the Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that it
was constitutionally permissible have not had higher
homicide rates than states with the death penalty,
government statistics and a new survey by The New York Times
Indeed, 10 of the 12 states without capital punishment
have homicide rates below the national average, Federal
Bureau of Investigation data shows, while half the states
with the death penalty have homicide rates above the
national average. In a state-by- state analysis, The Times
found that during the last 20 years, the homicide rate in
states with the death penalty has been 48 percent to 101
percent higher than in states without the death penalty.
The study by The Times also found that homicide rates had
risen and fallen along roughly symmetrical paths in the
states with and without the death penalty, suggesting to
many experts that the threat of the death penalty rarely
"It is difficult to make the case for any deterrent
effect from these numbers," said Steven Messner, a
criminologist at the State University of New York at Albany,
who reviewed the analysis by The Times. "Whatever the
factors are that affect change in homicide rates, they don't
seem to operate differently based on the presence or absence
of the death penalty in a state."
That is one of the arguments most frequently made against
capital punishment in states without the death penalty
ó that and the assertion that it is difficult to mete
out fairly. Opponents also maintain that it is too expensive
to prosecute and that life without parole is a more
efficient form of punishment.
Prosecutors and officials in states that have the death
penalty are as passionate about the issue as their
counterparts in states that do not have capital punishment.
While they recognize that it is difficult to make the case
for deterrence, they contend that there are powerful reasons
to carry out executions. Rehabilitation is ineffective, they
argue, and capital punishment is often the only penalty that
matches the horrific nature of some crimes. Furthermore,
they say, society has a right to retribution and the
finality of an execution can bring closure for victims'
Polls show that these views are shared by a large number
of Americans. And, certainly, most states have death penalty
statutes. Twelve states have chosen otherwise, but their
experiences have been largely overlooked in recent
discussions about capital punishment.
"I think Michigan made a wise decision 150 years ago,"
said the state's governor, John Engler, a Republican.
Michigan abolished the death penalty in 1846 and has
resisted attempts to reinstate it. "We're pretty proud of
the fact that we don't have the death penalty," Governor
Engler said, adding that he opposed the death penalty on
moral and pragmatic grounds.
Governor Engler said he was not swayed by polls that
showed 60 percent of Michigan residents favored the death
penalty. He said 100 percent would like not to pay
In addition to Michigan, and its Midwestern neighbors
Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin, the states
without the death penalty are Alaska, Hawaii, West Virginia,
Rhode Island, Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts, where an
effort to reinstate it was defeated last year.
No single factor explains why these states have chosen
not to impose capital punishment. Culture and religion play
a role, as well as political vagaries in each state. In West
Virginia, for instance, the state's largest newspaper, The
Charleston Gazette, supported a drive to abolish the death
penalty there in 1965. Repeated efforts to reinstate the
death penalty have been rebuffed by the legislature.
The arguments for and against the death penalty have not
changed much. At Michigan's constitutional convention in
1961, the delegates heard arguments that the death penalty
was not a deterrent, that those executed were usually the
poor and disadvantaged, and that innocent people had been
sentenced to death.
"The same arguments are being made today," said Eugene G.
Wanger, who had introduced the language to enshrine a ban on
capital punishment in Michigan's constitution at that
convention. The delegates overwhelmingly adopted the ban,
141 to 3. Mr. Wanger said two- thirds of the delegates were
Republicans, like himself, and most were conservative. Last
year, a former state police officer introduced legislation
to reinstate the death penalty. He did not even get the
support of the state police association, and the legislation
In Minnesota, which abolished capital punishment in 1911,
60 percent of the residents support the death penalty, said
Susan Gaertner, a career prosecutor in St. Paul and the
elected county attorney there since 1994. But public
sentiment had not translated into legislative action, Ms.
Gaertner said. "The public policy makers in Minnesota think
the death penalty is not efficient, it is not a deterrent,
it is a divisive form of punishment that we simply don't
need," she said.
In Honolulu, the prosecuting attorney, Peter Carlisle,
said he had changed his views about capital punishment,
becoming an opponent, after looking at the crime statistics
and finding a correlation between declines in general crimes
and in the homicide rates. "When the smaller crimes go down
ó the quality of life crimes ó then the murder
rate goes down," Mr. Carlisle said.
Therefore, he said, it was preferable to spend the
resources available to him prosecuting these general crimes.
Prosecuting a capital case is "extremely expensive," he
By the very nature of the gravity of the case, defense
lawyers and prosecutors spend far more time on a capital
case than a noncapital one. It takes longer to pick a jury,
longer for the state to present its case and longer for the
defense to put on its witnesses. There are also considerably
greater expenses for expert witnesses, including
psychologists and, these days, DNA experts. Then come the
defendant's appeals, which can be considerable, but are not
the biggest cost of the case, prosecutors say.
Mr. Carlisle said his views on the death penalty had not
been affected by the case of Bryan K. Uyesugi, a Xerox copy
machine repairman who gunned down seven co-workers last
November in the worst mass murder in Hawaii's history. Mr.
Uyesugi was convicted in June and is serving life without
chance of parole.
Mr. Carlisle has doubts about whether the death penalty
is a deterrent. "We haven't had the death penalty, but we
have one of the lowest murder rates in the country," he
said. The F.B.I.'s statistics for 1998, the last year for
which the data is available, showed Hawaii's homicide rate
was the fifth-lowest.
The homicide rate in North Dakota, which does not have
the death penalty, was lower than the homicide rate in South
Dakota, which does have it, according to F.B.I. statistics
for 1998. Massachusetts, which abolished capital punishment
in 1984, has a lower rate than Connecticut, which has six
people on death row; the homicide rate in West Virginia is
30 percent below that of Virginia, which has one of the
highest execution rates in the country.
Other factors affect homicide rates, of course, including
unemployment and demographics, as well as the amount of
money spent on police, prosecutors and prisons.
But the analysis by The Times found that the demographic
profile of states with the death penalty is not far
different from that of states without it. The poverty rate
in states with the death penalty, as a whole, was 13.4
percent in 1990, compared with 11.4 percent in states
without the death penalty.
Mr. Carlisle's predecessor in Honolulu, Keith M.
Kaneshiro, agrees with him about deterrence. "I don't think
there's a proven study that says it's a deterrent," Mr.
Kaneshiro said. Still, he said, he believed that execution
was warranted for some crimes, like a contract killing or
the slaying of a police officer. Twice while he was
prosecuting attorney, Mr. Kaneshiro got a legislator to
introduce a limited death penalty bill, but, he said, they
In general, Mr. Kaneshiro said, Hawaiians fear that the
death penalty would be given disproportionately to racial
minorities and the poor.
In Milwaukee, the district attorney for the last 32
years, E. Michael McCann, shares the view that the death
penalty is applied unfairly to minorities. "It is rare that
a wealthy white man gets executed, if it happens at all,"
Mr. McCann said.
Those who "have labored long in the criminal justice
system know, supported by a variety of studies and extensive
personal experience, that blacks get the harsher hand in
criminal justice and particularly in capital punishment
cases," Mr. McCann wrote in "Opposing Capital Punishment: A
Prosecutor's Perspective," published in the Marquette Law
Review in 1996. Forty-three percent of the people on death
row across the country are African-Americans, according to
the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
The death penalty also has been employed much more often
when the victim was white ó 82 percent of the victims
of death row inmates were white, while only 50 percent of
all homicide victims were white.
Supporters of capital punishment who say that executions
are justified by the heinous nature of some crimes often
cite the case of Jeffrey L. Dahmer, the serial killer who
murdered and dismembered at least 17 boys and men, and ate
flesh from at least one of his victims.
Mr. McCann prosecuted Mr. Dahmer, but the case did not
dissuade him from his convictions on the death penalty. "To
participate in the killing of another human being, it
diminishes the respect for life. Period," Mr. McCann said.
He added, "Although I am a district attorney, I have a gut
suspicion of the state wielding the power of the death over
In Detroit, John O'Hair, the district attorney, similarly
ponders the role of the state when looking at the death
Borrowing from Justice Louis E. Brandeis, Mr. O'Hair
said: "Government is a teacher, for good or for bad, but
government should set the example. I do not believe that
government engaging in violence or retribution is the right
example. You don't solve violence by committing
Detroit has one of the highest homicide rates in the
United States ó five times more than New York in 1998
ó but Mr. O'Hair said bringing back the death penalty
is not the answer.
"I do not think the death penalty is a deterrent of any
consequence in preventing murders," said Mr. O'Hair, who has
been a prosecutor and judge for 30 years. Most homicides, he
said, are "impulsive actions, crimes of passion," in which
the killers do not consider the consequences of what they
Nor, apparently, do the people of Detroit see the death
penalty as a way of cutting crime. Only 45 percent of
Detroit residents favored capital punishment, a poll by
EPIC/MRA, a polling organization in Lansing, Mich., found
last year; in Michigan over all, 59 percent favored
executions, which is roughly the level of support for the
death penalty nationally.
To illustrate the point that killers rarely considered
the consequences of their actions, a prosecutor in Des
Moines, John Sarcone, described the case of four people who
murdered two elderly women. They killed one in Iowa, but
drove the other one across the border to Missouri, a state
that has the death penalty.
Mr. Sarcone said Iowa prosecutors were divided on the
death penalty, and legislation to reinstate it was rejected
by the Republican-controlled legislature in 1997. The big
issue was cost, he said.
Last year in Michigan, Larry Julian, a Republican from a
rural district, introduced legislation that would put the
death penalty option to a referendum.
But Mr. Julian, a retired state police officer, had
almost no political support for the bill, not even from the
Michigan State Troopers Association, he said, and the bill
died without a full vote. The Catholic Church lobbied
State officials in Michigan are generally satisfied with
the current law. "Our policies in Michigan have worked
without the death penalty," said Matthew Davis, spokesman
for the Michigan Department of Corrections. "Instituting it
now may not be the most effective use of people's
Today in Michigan, 2,572 inmates are serving sentences of
life without parole, and they tend to cause fewer problems
than the general prison population, Mr. Davis said.
They are generally quieter, not as insolent, more likely
to obey the rules and less likely to try to escape, he said.
Their motivation is quite clear, he said: to get into a
lower security classification. When they come in, they are
locked up 23 hours a day, 7 days a week, and fed through a
small hole in the door. After a long period of good
behavior, they can live in a larger cell, which is part of a
larger, brighter room, eat with 250 other prisoners, and
One thing they cannot look forward to is getting out. In
Michigan, life without parole means you stay in prison your
entire natural life, not that you get out after 30 or 40
years, Mr. Davis said.
In many states, when life without parole is an option the
public's support for the death penalty drops sharply. "The
fact that we have life without parole takes a lot of impetus
from people who would like to see the death penalty," said
Ms. Gaertner, the chief prosecutor in St. Paul.
In most states with the death penalty, life without
parole is not an option for juries. In Texas, prosecutors
have successfully lobbied against legislation that would
give juries the option of life without parole instead of the
Mr. Davis said a desire "to extract a pound of flesh" was
behind many of the arguments for capital punishment. "But
that pound of flesh comes at a higher price than a lifetime
Mr. O'Hair, the Detroit prosecutor said, "If you're after
retribution, vengeance, life in prison without parole is
about as punitive as you can get."