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Uses and Abuses of Empirical Evidence in the Death Penalty Debate


John J. Donohue III


Stanford Law School; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Justin Wolfers


University of Michigan at Ann Arbor - Department of Economics; The Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan; The Brookings Institution; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER); Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA); Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR); CESifo (Center for Economic Studies and Ifo Institute); Kiel Institute for the World Economy


Stanford Law Review, Vol. 58, December 2005

Abstract:     
Does the death penalty save lives? A surge of recent interest in this question has yielded a series of papers that purport to show robust and precise estimates of a substantial deterrent effect of capital punishment. We assess the various approaches that have been used in this literature, testing the robustness of these inferences. Specifically, we start by assessing the time series evidence, comparing the history of executions and homicides in the United States and Canada, and within the United States, between executing and non-executing states. We analyze the effects of the judicial experiments provided by the 1972 Furman and 1976 Gregg decisions and assess the relationship between execution and homicide rates in state panel data since 1934. We then revisit the existing instrumental variables approaches and assess two recent state-specific execution moratoria. In each case, we find that previous inferences of large deterrent effects based upon specific samples, functional forms, control variables, comparison groups, or IV strategies are extremely fragile and that even small changes in specifications yield dramatically different results. The fundamental difficulty facing the econometrician is that the death penalty - at least as it has been implemented in the United States - is applied so rarely that the number of homicides that it can plausibly have caused or deterred cannot be reliably disentangled from the large year-to-year changes in the homicide rate caused by other factors. As such, short samples and particular specifications may yield large but spurious correlations. We conclude that existing estimates appear to reflect a small and unrepresentative sample of the estimates that arise from alternative approaches. Sampling from the broader universe of plausible approaches suggests not just reasonable doubt about whether there is any deterrent effect of the death penalty, but profound uncertainty - even about its sign.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 56

JEL Classification: H00, K00, K14

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Date posted: December 19, 2005  

Suggested Citation

Donohue, John J. and Wolfers, Justin, Uses and Abuses of Empirical Evidence in the Death Penalty Debate. Stanford Law Review, Vol. 58, December 2005. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=870312

Contact Information

John J. Donohue III (Contact Author)
Stanford Law School ( email )
559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States
650-575-7166 (Phone)
National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)
1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
Justin Wolfers
University of Michigan at Ann Arbor - Department of Economics ( email )
611 Tappan Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1220
United States
734-764-2447 (Phone)
HOME PAGE: http://www.nber.org/~jwolfers
The Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan ( email )
735 South State Street, Weill Hall
Ann Arbor, MI 48109
United States
734-615-6846 (Phone)
HOME PAGE: http://www.nber.org/~jwolfers
The Brookings Institution ( email )
1775 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20036
United States
HOME PAGE: http://www.nber.org/~jwolfers
National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) ( email )
1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
HOME PAGE: http://www.nber.org/~jwolfers
Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA)
P.O. Box 7240
Bonn, D-53072
Germany
HOME PAGE: http://www.iza.org/en/webcontent/personnel/photos/index_html?key=1737
Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR)
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London, EC1V 3PZ
United Kingdom
HOME PAGE: http://www.cepr.org/researchers/details/rschcontact.asp?IDENT=157943
CESifo (Center for Economic Studies and Ifo Institute) ( email )
Poschinger Str. 5
Munich, DE-81679
Germany
Kiel Institute for the World Economy ( email )
P.O. Box 4309
Kiel, D-24100
Germany
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