There have been 35 people executed in the United States this year, the most recent being Daytonian Marvallous Keene, who died by lethal injection Tuesday, July 21, for the 1992 Christmas season killings of five people here.
In Western Europe, though, there hasn’t been an execution since 1977, according to Franklin Zimring in his 2003 book “The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment.”
While a public debate rages in America over whether capital punishment deters crime, there’s a debate within academic circles over why we stand alone among modern Western civilizations in continuing to execute.
Montgomery County Prosecutor Mathias Heck Jr., who has prosecuted several capital murder cases, said studies saying the death penalty deters crime seem to be balanced by just as many saying the opposite.
“It’s a really difficult question because we cannot know what’s in a perpetrator’s mind just before he steals something, or robs a bank or shoots somebody,” Heck said.
Heck said he knows that some criminals shy away from using guns in crimes because they know being convicted of using a gun automatically adds a few years to a prison sentence. “But whether you can take the logical step that the death penalty is a deterrent, that’s really hard to say,” he said.
So why do Americans continue to execute in the face of such ambiguity?
Zimring theorized that the persistence of capital punishment is related to the belief developed through the history of certain parts of the country that the community has the right to exact justice.
Zimring points out that the states that have carried out the most executions since 1976 tend to be the same states in the South and Southwest where lynchings were most common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Researcher David Garland offers a different theory in his 2005 article “Capital Punishment and American Culture” in the journal Punishment and Society.
Garland believes the United States is following the same path as Western Europe when it comes to capital punishment; we’re just a step or two behind.
Garland said as societies modernize they tend to follow a single pattern. First the range of offenses possibly leading to execution reduces. Next execution by torture disappears followed by the disappearance of public executions and the development of swift, painless forms of death.
Eventually a few people begin speaking out publicly against the death penalty, and public sentiment against the practice grows.
In the next phase, legal safeguards against inappropriate execution grow. What followed in Europe in the latter 20th century were reductions in the use of capital punishment followed by legal abolition.
The United States would seem to be in the latter stages of Garland’s progression. The Death Penalty Information Center says only about 65 percent of the public currently supports capital punishment, and legal safeguards now mean most people sentenced to death spend years on death row while automatic appeals in their cases play out.
A Step Back is planned as a recurring theme for this column in which issues in the news will be approached from a variety of social science perspectives. If you have a subject you’d like to see examined through the lens of history, psychology, anthropology, genetics, political science, communication theory or some other discipline, let me know. Also I welcome input from social scientists, ethicists, scholars and others with their own takes on the news.
By James Cummings, Staff Writer, Dayton Daily News