To the Editor:

Your article “At 60% of Total, Texas is Bucking Execution Trend” (front page, Dec. 26) states, “The rate at which Texas sentences people to death is not especially high given its murder rate.”

One of the prime arguments in favor of the death sentence, in my understanding, is its deterrent effect. The Texas experience clearly refutes that argument.

Nicholas Downey
Brooklyn, Dec. 26, 2007

Note from KBJ: The letter writer’s logic escapes me. Recent studies show that each judicial killing saves several innocent lives. Indeed, that the state of New York isn’t killing murderers may yet cost Nicholas Downey his life. Perhaps he should move to Texas. As for deterrence being an argument for capital punishment, let me say this: Deterrence is a bonus. We Texans kill murderers because they deserve to die, and justice consists in giving each person his or her due. If, in killing murderers, we save innocent lives, so much the better.

Note 2 from KBJ: Is the letter writer suggesting that, in order for capital punishment to deter, the murder rate must be zero? That’s preposterous. By that standard, public education is a failure if even one student can’t read. Not everyone is deterrable, just as not everyone is educable. But some are. Deterrence is for those who are deterrable; education is for those who are educable. Let’s call this the “If it doesn’t deter everyone, then it doesn’t deter anyone” fallacy. Maybe the letter writer is implying that the murder rate should fall rather than remain constant if capital punishment deters. That, too, is idiotic. The question is not what happens to the murder rate over time, but what the murder rate would be without capital punishment. If it would be higher than it is, then capital punishment deters. Let me illustrate. Suppose that, without capital punishment, the number of murders in Texas each year is 1,000, 1,000, and 1,000. Suppose that, with capital punishment, the number of murders in Texas each year is 800, 800, and 800. Is the letter writer suggesting that, since 800 murders are committed each year, there is no deterrent effect? By hypothesis, there is a deterrent effect. We have 200 fewer murders each year than we would have without capital punishment!

Note 3 from KBJ: Suppose, for the sake of argument, that (1) the only basis for capital punishment is deterrence and (2) the studies are inconclusive concerning the deterrent effect of capital punishment. We must make a decision under conditions of uncertainty. Follow my reasoning. Either capital punishment deters or it doesn’t. Suppose capital punishment deters. If we kill murderers, we save innocent lives. If we don’t kill murderers, we lose the chance to save innocent lives. In that case, it’s best to kill murderers. Suppose capital punishment does not deter. Then no innocent lives are saved no matter what we do. The decision to kill murderers dominates the decision not to kill them.

Note 4 from KBJ: It would be nice to have a two-by-two box diagram for this. On the left of the diagram, from top to bottom, it would read “Kill Murderers” and “Don’t Kill Murderers.” Across the top of the diagram, from left to right, it would read “Capital Punishment Deters” and “Capital Punishment Does Not Deter.” In box 1 (the northwest box), it says “Innocent Lives Saved.” In box 2 (the northeast box), it says “No Innocent Lives Saved.” In box 3 (the southwest box), it says “Innocent Lives Lost.” In box 4 (the southeast box), it says “No Innocent Lives Saved.” Thanks in advance to anyone who prepares such a diagram for me.