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Posted April 11, 2006

Capital Punishment Does Not Deter Murder, Fagan Says

Jeffery Fagan

“The point here is to think about [whether] there [is] a plausible causal story of deterrence that we can tell, just even taking these studies on their face. The answer is, I don’t think there is,” Jeffery Fagan said.

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Capital punishment as a consequence of murder does not deter future murders, despite long-standing arguments to the contrary, said Columbia law professor Jeffery Fagan, who presented his findings on the deterrent effects of the death penalty at a Criminal Law Colloquium Series lecture April 6.   

“I have some doubts about the validity of the causal story about deterrence, particularly given what we understand about murder, which is impulsive,” he said. “Murderers themselves often have cognitive impairments, the kind of impairments that could stem from organic brain damage, could stem from a lifetime of abuse, could stem from substance abuse, alcohol—any one of a number of factors.”

Beginning in the 1970s a series of studies were published at incremental times coinciding with drug epidemics, the release of new data, and national debates claiming that a connection existed between the death penalty and murder rates. Upon evaluating these studies and conducting his own research, Fagan found no evidence to support their claims. Furthermore, there cannot be confidence in the findings of these studies because the results are extremely unpredictable and unstable, he said.

Fagan said these studies and subsequent claims are deeply flawed technically and methodologically. For example, they fail to take into account life-without-parole candidates, incarcerations, or drug homicides. There are huge chunks of missing data and strange computational decisions made, and the studies never do a direct test of deterrence, he argued.  

The findings were “really trumpeted on the death advocacy [Web] sites and they really pulled back a lot because questions have been raised in a variety of formats about the validity of the findings.”

Given the level of uncertainty of these findings, Fagan said, “We should not base public policy on it.” Unfortunately, the press has given the claims credibility, and the studies’ strong causal claims have already influenced public opinion and public policy, he said.

“The point here is to think about [whether] there [is] a plausible causal story of deterrence that we can tell, just even taking these studies on their face. The answer is, I don’t think there is.”

Fagan’s lecture was sponsored by the Law School, the Student Legal Forum, and the Virginia Innocence Project Student Group.
• Reported by Emily Williams

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