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Does the death penalty deter?

Utahns, experts split on capital punishment's ability to reduce crime

SALT LAKE CITY — Does shooting Ronnie Lee Gardner to death next week, or executing anyone for that matter, make people think twice about killing someone?

It's a question with no clear-cut answer.

Capital punishment certainly is a specific deterrent in that an executed killer will never kill again. But whether it generally deters murder and other violent crimes could be debated ad infinitum.

Studies over the years are not definitive either way, with many concluding that the rarity of executions renders them an ineffective deterrent. Some show a temporary reduction in crime immediately following an execution, while others say those statistics are not mathematically valid.

"I often ask people, 'Can you name the last two men executed in Utah or the last two women executed in the United States?' and they can't, and I ask how much of a deterrent can it be if we don't know their names or what they've done?" said Weber State University criminologist Kay Gillespie, an expert on capital punishment.

"We don't have any evidence that it deters much either way. We don't know that it does and don't know that it doesn't."

Though proponents and opponents disagree on the justness of the death penalty, they tend to agree with that assessment.

"The argument is all over the place," said Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.

Salt Lake attorney Ralph Dellapiana agrees, saying there's substantial dispute in the academic world.

Says Creighton Horton, who prosecuted a dozen capital cases during his 30-year career in Utah: "The only thing you know for sure is the killers who were not deterred because they went ahead and killed in jurisdictions with the death penalty."

Utahns are split in their opinions of the death penalty's effectiveness.

Dan Jones & Associates asked Utahns this week whether executing people who commit murder deters others from killing. Half of those polled for the Deseret News and KSL said they believe the death penalty does deter others, while 44 percent said it does not have much effect. The margin of error for the poll is plus or minus 6.5 percent.

Utahns' opinions matched those in the rest of the country. A national Harris poll asking the same question in 2008 showed almost identical results.

A majority of the 312 Utahns surveyed — 66 percent — also indicated that they believe the death penalty is applied fairly in the United States today, while 24 percent said it is applied unfairly. In a national Gallup poll conducted in October, 57 percent of Americans said capital punishment is applied fairly, while 34 percent indicated otherwise.

Dellapiana, who heads Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said what makes sense to him are studies that show states with the death penalty don't have lower homicide rates than states without it.

"That seems to be strong evidence to the contrary" that capital punishment deters murder, he said.

He also says it makes sense that people who kill don't assess the consequences.

"I signal before I turn partly because I don't want to crash into someone, but partly because I don't want to get a ticket," Dellapiana said.

But people "who do crazy things" don't think ahead.

"They don't stop to think, 'Am I going to get life without parole or am I going to get the death penalty?' " he said.

The Most Rev. John C. Wester, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, said society cannot overcome crime simply by executing criminals. "The death penalty offers the tragic illusion that we can defend life by taking life." Bishop Wester is a founding member of the Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Even though there's no conclusive evidence regarding deterrence, Shurtleff said it would be a mistake to get rid of capital punishment.

"Doing away with the death penalty does makes some guys more likely to kill," he said.

Knowing they have no chance of being executed would prompt criminals like Gardner to "kill witnesses, not leave anybody behind," Shurtleff said.

While general deterrence is debatable, he said, the notion of "incapacitation" is not.

"By executing a murderer, you stop them from ever killing again," Shurtleff said. "That is incontrovertible. No argument. Clearly, you save lives when you execute somebody."

A factor that diminishes general deterrence is the time it takes to carry out a death sentence. Appeals typically take years, if not decades, to run their course. Furthermore, most capital prosecutions don't result in a death sentence, and most death sentences don't result in an execution.

If the death penalty was used more often and the execution carried out quicker, it would stop others from killing, said Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield.

"It can be (a deterrent) if it were done right, but I don't think we're doing it right," he said.

Ray plans to introduce legislation next year that would limit the amount of time for death penalty appeals. He said he's studying the so-called "rocket docket" that intends to speed up the legal process.

"If we're going to use the death penalty, let's do it wisely, let's make it effective," he said. "If we don't, it won't be a deterrent at all."

In a poll of 500 police chiefs nationwide, greater use of the death penalty ranked last on a list of best ways to reduce violent crime. Increasing the number of police officers, reducing drug abuse, and creating a better economy and more jobs all ranked higher than capital punishment.

Only 37 percent of those polled believe the death penalty reduces murder, while 48 percent believe it does not, according to the "Smart on Crime" report from the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

Syracuse Police Chief Brian Wallace agrees the death penalty isn't much of a deterrent.

"I don't think people who commit those crimes think, 'I'm going to get executed if I commit this crime,' " he said.

But he is not opposed to the death penalty for serial killers and those who kill in a heinous manner.

"There's no reason that someone like that should remain alive. They've shown if they had an opportunity to kill again, they will," Wallace said. "If for nothing more than justice, they ought to be executed."

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