Minority Practice, Majority’s Burden: The Death Penalty Today
James S. Liebman
Columbia University - Law School
affiliation not provided to SSRN
August 23, 2011
Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, Forthcoming
Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 11-278
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.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 111
Keywords: criminal law, capital punishment, death penalty, felony murder, deterrence, localism
Date posted: August 23, 2011 ; Last revised: October 6, 2011