February 16, 2011

Show Your Work, Please

As I was getting ready for work the other day, I heard a disturbing bit of information.  What I thought I heard was that someone in the West Virginia legislature had proposed a bill to bring back the death penalty in the state.  We did away with it in 1965.  It's one of those few social justice issues where we were ahead of the curve.

Turns out, I heard right, which is very disappointing.  Even more disappointing, though, was the public hearing held on the issue by the House Judiciary Committee yesterday.  Both sides, pro and con, were led primarily by appeals to emotion (victims' families) and God talk (most of the con folks).  Neither facts nor evidence-based argument seemed high on the agenda.  In fact, the only bit of practicality that cropped up was this:
Others argued that despite scientific advancements the legal system is still flawed and therefore should not include a penalty so irreversible as the death penalty.

'What's particularly disturbing about the fact that we're considering reinstating the death penalty now in West Virginia is that we're still living with and dealing with the legacy of Fred Zain,' said Julie Archer of the West Virginia Citizen Action Group.

Zain was a state police serologist from 1986 to 1989 who was found to have exaggerated or faked lab tests in dozens of cases.
See, regardless of whether it makes victims' families feel better or makes Jesus cry, there are some very down-to-earth issue that need to be addressed.  Given that the pro death penalty side is the one seeking to change the law, I think the burden is one them.  Here's what I'd like to see addressed if this project moves forward.

First, what is the deterrent effect of the death penalty, if any?  I know there are conflicting studies on this, but to be honest I don't know how has the better side of the debate.  Answering that question should be step one in any analysis.

Second, and a related question, what is it that we're looking to deter, anyway?  West Virginia traditionally has a low crime rate (39th of 51, according to the most recent numbers I can find).  Our murder rate is a bit higher (tied for 28th), but is still behind such noted execution mills as Virginia & Ohio (t-24), and Texas and Florida (t-15).  Is this a solution in search of a problem?

Third, who is going to pay for all this.  Contrary to what common sense may tell you, it does cost much more to try, convict, and execute someone than it is to house them in prison for life.  In this state, we'll need to upgrade the court system - a midlevel appellate court will be needed - the public defender system, and our forensic science infrastructure.  In the state of Zain, that is not a hypothetical problem.  As none other than *gulp* FoxNews explained last year:
Every time a killer is sentenced to die, a school closes.
Look, I'm a death penalty absolutist.  I'm against it in all instances for all killers (yes, Hitler included).  But I realize that, "but, it's wrong" isn't a cogent argument.  Neither is, "but, it's right."  Bring me some facts.  Make some serious arguments.  It's the least we can do before we put the state back in the death business.

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