Earlier this week, Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd sent out a press release defending the death penalty as a crime deterrent. Zahnd tells The Pitch that the press release was the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys' response to anti-death-penalty activists who lobbied at the state capitol yesterday.
The group's press release cited the results of a 2002 Emory University study that claims to prove that every U.S. execution prevents 18 murders.
We asked Sean O'Brien, adjunct law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, if he was familiar with the study. He e-mailed several articles debunking the claims of the authors at Emory.
O'Brien pointed us to a 2009 study by law professors from the
University of California at Berkeley and the Columbia University Law
School called, "Executions, Deterrance and Homicide: A Tale of Two
Cities." In it, they compared the homicide rates in two similar cities
-- Singapore and Hong Kong -- whose policies on the death penalty are
polar opposites. Singapore executed more people than any other nation
in the world in 1996; Hong Kong abolished capital punishment in 1993.
"By comparing two closely matched places with huge contrasts in actual
execution but no differences in homicide trends, we have generated a
unique test of the exuberant claims of deterrence that have been produced over the past decade in the U.S.," the authors write in the study's introduction.
In his e-mail, O'Brien told us he'd seen Zahnd's press release. "It sounds as if the Missouri
Prosecuting Attorney's Association is advocating ritual human sacrifice
as a crime reduction strategy," O'Brien wrote. "When you look at the studies
scientifically, that's not a ridiculous interpretation of their
We sent the 2009 study to Zahnd, who said he wasn't familiar with it. "Leaving the science aside," he wrote, "wouldn't common sense suggest the death penalty has a deterrent effect? We know people do things every day based on rewards and penalties."
Zahnd gave us an anecdote from our neighbors to the west. "Kansas reinstated the death penalty in 1935 after a spate of killings by criminals who admitted ... they chose Kansas to commit more crimes solely because they could avoid a death sentence if they were captured.
"It's all very interesting," Zahnd wrote.
And on that point, we can definitely agree