Minority Practice, Majority’s Burden: The Death Penalty Today

111 Pages Posted: 23 Aug 2011 Last revised: 6 Oct 2011

James S. Liebman

Columbia University - Law School

Peter Clarke

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Date Written: August 23, 2011


Although supported in principle by two-thirds of the public and even more of the States, capital punishment in the United States is a minority practice when the actual death-sentencing practices of the nation’s 3000-plus counties and their populations are considered. This feature of American capital punishment has been present for decades, has become more pronounced recently, and is especially clear when death sentences, which are merely infrequent, are distinguished from executions, which are exceedingly rare.

The first question this Article asks is what forces account for the death-proneness of a minority of American communities? The answer to that question - that a combination of parochialism and libertarianism characterizes the communities most disposed to impose death sentences - helps to answer the next question addressed here: Why so few death sentences end in executions? It turns out that the imposition of death sentences, particularly for felony murder (a proxy for the out-of-the-blue stranger killings that generate the greatest fear among parochial communities), provides parochial and libertarian communities with a quick and cheap alternative to effective law enforcement. And that alternative is largely realized whether or not death sentences are ultimately carried out. This explanation sheds light on two other criminal law conundrums - the survival of the most idiosyncratic manifestation of the felony murder doctrine (which mysteriously transmogrifies involuntary manslaughter into capitally aggravated murder) and the failure of the death penalty to have a demonstrable deterrent effect (which is not surprising if the death penalty operates as a weak substitute for, rather than a powerful addition to, otherwise effective law enforcement strategies). The explanation also reveals a number of costs the capitally prone minority imposes on the majority of citizens and locales that can do without the death penalty, including more crime, a cumbersome process for reviewing systematically flawed death sentences whose execution is of less interest to the death sentences’ originators than their imposition, and a heightened risk - to the judicial system as well as individual defendants - of miscarriages of justice.

These explanations, in turn, beg the most important and difficult question considered here. Why do the majority of communities and citizens who can live without the death penalty tolerate a minority practice with serious costs that the majority mainly bears? With a bow towards Douglas Hay’s famous explanation for the survival over many decades of eighteenth century England’s no less universally vilified death-sentencing system - which likewise condemned many but executed few - we offer some reasons for the minority’s success in wagging the majority. In response to recent evidence of a (thus far largely counterproductive) majority backlash, we conclude by offering some suggestions about how the majority might require the minority of death-prone communities to bear more of the costs of their death-proneness without increasing the risk of miscarriage of justice.

Keywords: criminal law, capital punishment, death penalty, felony murder, deterrence, localism

Suggested Citation

Liebman, James S. and Clarke, Peter, Minority Practice, Majority’s Burden: The Death Penalty Today (August 23, 2011). Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, Forthcoming; Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 11-278. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1915322 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1915322

James Steven Liebman (Contact Author)

Columbia University - Law School ( email )

435 West 116th Street
New York, NY 10025
United States
212-854-3423 (Phone)
212-854-7946 (Fax)

Peter Clarke

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

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