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Capital punishment

Death would be too good for Marathon bomber

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment January 30, 2014 04:30 PM

I am disappointed, although hardly surprised, by the decision announced today that the federal government would be pursuing the death penalty in its prosecution of accused Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

There is no denying, of course, that Tsarnaev’s alleged crimes at and after last April's Boston Marathon were absolutely reprehensible, far more egregious than the misdeeds perpetrated by most criminals who have been put to death in America over the past few decades. Notwithstanding the horrible suffering that the defendant is believed to have caused, pursuing death would only increase his martyrdom status among those who claim his innocence and have characterized him as a political prisoner.


What the Tsarnaev punishment poll means

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment September 16, 2013 11:00 AM

As a long-standing opponent of capital punishment, I was certainly encouraged by a first glance at the front page of today’s Globe. The top-left headline was a pleasant surprise: “Most want life term for Tsarnaev.

A new poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center had found that a healthy majority of local residents preferred a sentence of life imprisonment without parole eligibility over death for accused Marathon Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, if convicted. Overall, 57% of the 704 respondents felt that life without parole would be the best option, while 33% insisted on the death penalty and 10% were not sure.

Was it the recent news about the millions spent on prosecuting James Bulger who reportedly was willing to make a not-so-outrageous plea deal that would still have kept him locked up for life that made respondents displeased about the prospect of another long and expensive trial? Or was it a concern for not transforming Tsarnaev into a martyr in the eyes of others who hold anti-American attitudes? Or maybe, just maybe, it was a positive sign of civility and sensibility, even in response to an incredibly heinous crime.


Dead woman walking free...not quite

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment June 25, 2013 10:00 AM

“An educated consumer is our best customer,” said the late Sy Syms in a catchy marketing slogan for his chain of discount clothing stores. News reporting, like selling clothes, also depends on the intelligence of readers as well as their willingness to dig deep beneath the headlines.

Newspaper headlines are designed to grab the reader’s attention, not necessarily to tell the story. In fact, headlines can sometimes misinform more than they inform, and not just by virtue of their brevity. Headlines are crafted by a different hand from the one that reported the news.

An AP wire piece printed as a National brief on Page 2 of The June 17 Boston Globe carried the headline, “Death row inmate to be freed today.” The story line would certainly have suggested that the condemned inmate was about to step from the shadow of the death chamber into the bright light of freedom.

Unfortunately, this is the very type of scenario that stokes the public’s fear and serves as a powerful argument for proponents of capital punishment. “If we don’t kill him now,”so goes the refrain, “he’ll slip out the back when we’re not looking." Or, “You just can’t trust the criminal justice system to ensure justice for the victims.” And finally, “we need capital punishment to prevent dangerous killers from being set free someday down the line.”


Romney's good failure

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment September 5, 2012 11:00 AM

On stage in front of thousands of delighted delegates to the DNC in Charlotte, Governor Deval Patrick detailed the many ways in which his predecessor in the corner office on Beacon Hill failed the citizens of Massachusetts. And there was much to Governor Mitt Romney's record for Patrick to work with.

Never mind Mitt Romney’s outrageous attempts to abuse the Commonwealth as the butt of his anti-liberal barbs, even while still holding the state’s highest elective office, as he toured the country garnering momentum for his eventual run for the Presidency. According to Patrick, Mitt Romney left the Commonwealth in worse shape than when he assumed the leadership post four years earlier. Not only did Romney raise fees and cut education, but Massachusetts ranked 47th in job creation during his term as Governor.

There is, however, one failure to Romney’s administration -- and a significant one according to his own assessment -- for which we in Massachusetts are fortunate, at least financially. And that is Romney’s unsuccessful bid to restore capital punishment in Massachusetts.


A good day for justice

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment October 20, 2011 06:15 PM

This was a good day for the criminal justice system. A federal judge set aside the death sentence given confessed serial killer Gary Lee Sampson upon proof that one of the jurors who had recommended death had concealed information that would have disqualified her from service.

Despite the fact that justice prevailed, this turn of events will undoubtedly upset many people -- and for very different reasons.


Time to kill the death penalty

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment October 13, 2011 12:30 PM

The latest Gallup survey of public opinion concerning the death penalty is encouraging yet somewhat misleading. According to Gallup, opposition to capital punishment stands as high as it has been at any point in time since 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the sanction was unconstitutional in its uneven application against minorities and the poor. Based on 1,005 interviews taken between October 6 and October 9 of this year, 35% of respondents indicated their opposition to capital punishment.

Of course, turning that figure around (as many pro-death zealots will do), it is still the case that a healthy majority remains in favor of capital punishment. Specifically, 61% of the Gallup respondents was in favor of the death penalty, with another 4% offering no opinion on the matter.


Surviving homicide without vengeance

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment February 9, 2011 11:00 AM

I continue to be amazed at the arrogance of some people who insist that I would abandon my opposition to capital punishment if a loved one of mine were murdered. These folks apparently believe that they can anticipate how I would respond -- what would be in my heart and in my head -- even better than I can.

There is nothing automatic about becoming pro-death after surviving the tragic loss of a family member. Ultra-punitive know-it-alls who believe otherwise might take a lesson in civility from a Connecticut group that has signed a letter, urging repeal of the state's death penalty statute, to be delivered today to the legislators in Hartford.

It is not a constitutional argument that these residents of the Constitution State are advancing. Rather it is their shared wisdom about capital punishment -- a wisdom that has little to do with some liberal mantra or an ivory tower perspective. The experience linking these opponents of state-sponsored killing is that they all have lost a family member to murder. They see the downside to killing, no matter who is doing it and under what authority.


Life and death in the Caribbean

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment October 26, 2010 10:00 AM

I just returned from Trinidad and Tobago, and survived to tell about my academic expedition to the tiny nation that has the unflattering distinction of ranking fifth worldwide in homicide. Also home safe are the three dozen doctoral students and the few faculty colleagues who traveled with me. Still, one female student did endure a rather scary episode on our last day away, when an aggressive stranger cornered her in a locked room. But this close encounter of the frightening kind occurred in our upscale hotel, not in some crime-ridden section of this Caribbean republic.

I write about my journey not to turn this crime blog into a travel log, but to carry further my last column concerning deterrence —specifically, the question of whether the death penalty makes would-be killers think twice, assuming, of course, that they even think once. When it comes to thinking, however, it is wishful thinking for Trinis to expect that a proposed resumption of hanging will bring peace to their troubled country.

"Were we to reinstitute hangings," acting Prime Minister Jack Warner aid last summer, "it will have a dent on crime. I am convinced.” Despite the strength of his conviction, this widely-held perspective ignores both scientific research and basic logic concerning how drug dealers, gang-bangers and other predators balance risks and rewards.


Death penalty no deterrent for cop killers

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment October 19, 2010 12:15 PM

In the hotly-contested gubernatorial race in California, a state where executions are legal yet so infrequent that the backlog of cases exceeds 700, the death penalty has surfaced as an issue dividing the candidates. In a new television ad, Republican Meg Whitman criticizes her Democratic opponent for his stance on the issue:

"Jerry Brown opposes the death penalty," a police sergeant says in the 15-second message, after which another officer responds, "Even for cop killers."

Not only is the claim that Brown is soft on crime, but apparently he's not willing to protect the men and women in blue who put their lives on the line every day to protect the rest of us from harm.

No one, regardless of position on capital punishment, would argue against the idea of shielding the police from armed assailants. As shown in the figure below, dozens of law enforcement officers are murdered nationally every year while in the line of duty.


There is, however, an inherent inconsistency to the proposition that threatening would-be cop killers with the penalty of death might actually make them think twice about taking aim at the police. Weighing the risks and rewards, some criminals deliberately choose to kill a police officer rather than to be taken into custody. Although despicable, the act is designed to avoid punishment altogether, be it capital or of lesser variety.

A long tradition of research on the deterrence process indicates that what discourages people from wrongdoing is not the severity of punishment, but its perceived likelihood. By killing a police officer, a criminal seeks to reduce the chance of punishment—any punishment. Criminals who believe that they can avoid apprehension by killing a police officer will not be deterred by whatever penalty is on the books.


Death penalty - Still racist after all these years

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment October 12, 2010 08:30 AM

Contextual note: If you’ve been following this blog since its launch last March, you may already know that I am opposed to capital punishment. My opposition is not so much based on morality, ethics or a fundamental belief about the sanctity of human life, but on utility—that is, the lack of effectiveness or concrete gain derived from executing murderers. Previously, I wrote about the significant financial burden posed by the death penalty process, although, as some have argued, there is no price tag to justice. As promised, I plan to address in due course the many ways in which capital punishment is problematic. Here I discuss the issue of racial bias, and will take up other matters, including deterrence, in future columns.

* * *

In an “exit interview” of sorts just prior to his June retirement, Justice John Paul Stevens confessed to NPR’s Nina Totenberg that his only regret, while looking back over his 35 years on the Supreme Court, was a 1976 vote to affirm the use of capital punishment. In Gregg v. Georgia, decided just after Stevens’ appointment, the high court ended a four–year moratorium on the death penalty and cleared the way for states to resume executions under narrowly prescribed conditions.

The hope and expectation at the time was to constrain juries from misguided use of their discretion, a level of arbitrariness that had led the court in 1972 to strike down capital punishment. In a 5-4 decision, supported by 9 separate opinions, the Court had ruled in Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty, as practiced, violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against “cruel and unusual” punishment. The majority was of the opinion that the death penalty, although not cruel and unusual in principle, was however being applied capriciously and unevenly, more often against minorities and the poor.

Then in 1976, when presented with revised statutes, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 7-2 (with Stevens joining the majority), held that capital punishment was indeed constitutional under two conditions. First, the trial process needed to be bifurcated into guilt and penalty phases. Second, juries had to be given clear guidelines concerning the aggravating factors that would warrant such a sanction and the mitigating factors that would indicate otherwise. Stevens and his brethren believed that by reserving capital punishment only for the select group of heinous cases that were without mitigation, the penalty could be applied independently of race or privilege.


About the author

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University. He has written 18 books, including his newest, "Violence and Security on Campus: From Preschool through College." More »

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