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Criminal Justice Review ® 1990 College of Public and Urban Affairs
Volume 15, Number 2, Autumn 1990 Georgia State University



Scott H. Decker and Carol W Kohfeld

This study examines the effect of the death penalty on the murder rate. A 50-year time series is
employed for the period 1930-1980 for the five states with the largest number of executions during this
period: Georgia, New York, Texas, California, and North Carolina. Taken together, these five states
accounted for 40 [wrcent of all the executions performed during this period. Incorporating a lag structure
for the effect of executions, as well as several theoretically relevant explanatory variables for homicides,
the study identifies no deterrent effect for executions. Several different policy-relevant analyses are
performed, all with the same result. Neither the existence of the death penalty, its imposition, nor the level
of imposition explains significant amounts of the variation in homicide rates in the 50-year period, 1930 to

Capital punishment is an issue that has prompted analysis from scholars
in a variety of disciplines. Virtually every social science (and many physical
sciences and humanities as well) has contributed to the debate over the
existence, effect, and imposition of the death penalty. Such study now
appears to have reached a historical high, prompted no doubt by the recent
certification of the death penalty by the U.S. Supreme Court and the
executions that have subsequently been carried out.

Three topics of debate have received the most attention. First, the legal
merits of capital punishment have been debated in the courts, in state
legislatures, and by the public. These debates have been most concerned
with procedural issues and have concentrated in particulju- on Eighth
Amendment concerns regarding “cruel and unusual punishment.” While
some have sought to ground these arguments in a more substantive
framework, the bulk of the scrutiny in this regard has focused on the issue
of the way in which the penalty has been imposed. Typically, the
discriminatory or nonpatterned application of the death penalty has been
the principal concern of these studies (Kleck, 1981; Paternoster, 1983).
Thus, questions about the nature of the victim, characteristics of the
offender, and contribution of aggravating circumstances to the sentencing
decision have been the hallmarks of this approach.

As a second concern, many have debated the moral or ethical merits of
the death penalty. This tradition is perhaps the oldest and most consistent
theme in the analysis of the death penalty. Opponents have consistently


174 Scoit H. Decker and Carol W. Kohfeld

emphasized that executions represent little more than legalized killing
performed in the name of the state. As such, they argue, these practices are
without moral justification (Amsterdam, 1977; Conrad, 1983). Proponents,
on the other hand, have argued that the failure to impose this severe
penalty represents a serious moral error; indeed, such arguments have
emphasized that it is a moral injustice not to impose the death penalty.
These arguments stem from the traditional retributionist contention that
those who have committed an offense have earned a penalty, and that,
when such persons go unpunished, an injustice has been committed (Berns,
1979; Hook, 1961; Van den Haag, 1978).

Of all the debates, though, perhaps none has received more attention
than the presumed deterrent effect of capital punishment on homicides.
These deterrence studies have increased significantly in methodological and
statistical rigor in the last decade. Earlier works employed the use of
contiguous states as the basis for analysis. States with roughly similar social
and demographic characteristics were compared in order to determine
whether their homicide rates differed. Differences in this criterion variable
were presumed to be the result of the primary differentiating feature—that
one of the states had the death penalty and the other did not. Such analyses
(Bailey, 1974; Sellin, 1958; Sutherland, 1925) consistently demonstrated
that there was no difference in homicide rates between “similar” states that
varied only with respect to the existence of the death penalty.

The next significant methodological advance came with the advent of
correlational studies. The works of Bailey (1977) and Schuessler (1952) are
the best-known examples of this trend. These studies sought to show a
relationship between executions and the death penalty as well as other
exogenous variables. They, too, failed to demonstrate the deterrent effect
of executions identified by deterrence theory.

The most recent trend in deterrence studies has been the use of
multivariate statistical tools. These analyses have incorporated the use of
lag structures as well as a variety of techniques to minimize the effects of
autocorrelation. In addition, such techniques lend themselves particularly
well to the use of time series designs, a practice that represents an advance
in data as well as method. By including a large number of points in time,
deterrence studies can more accurately document the effects of executions.
Such studies can also be categorized by the type of data used. Most
deterrence studies in the 1970s used cross-sectional data (Bailey, 1974;
Ehrlich, 1975); aggregates of jurisdictions, typically states, were grouped
together for analysis. Recently, there has been a tendency to employ the use
of a single jurisdiction in time series analysis. This preserves the advantages
of the longitudinal design and eliminates some of the potential difficulties
inherent in cross-sectional studies, particularly where policy inference is a
likely application for the results.

The current study is consistent with these trends in deterrence studies. It
proposes a time series design that incorporates a lag structure for the

Criminal Justice Review 175

analysis of the deterrence question in five states. A 50-year time series is
used to assess the effect of executions on homicides in North Carolina,
California, Texas, New York, and Georgia. These five states were chosen
for analysis because of their historical use of the death penalty. They are
the jurisdictions that have imposed the death penalty most frequently in
this country. As such, they are likely candidates for analysis, from a policy
standpoint as well as on methodological grounds.


The evidence on the existence of a deterrent effect of the death penalty is
nearly unequivocal. Beginning with the work of Sellin (1958), most studies
have failed to discover a deterrent effect. The Sellin study compared the
homicide rates of similar contiguous states, one that had the death penalty
and one that did not. The difference between the states’ homicide rates in
each case was negligible. This led Sellin to conclude that there was no
deterrent effect for the death penalty.

Sellin’s conclusion has been called into question on a number of grounds
by Ehrlich (1975). The comparative approach, however, has recently been
resurrected by Lempert (1983), who addressed the Ehrhch criticisms by
basing his comparison of states not on the mere existence of the death
penalty but on the number of executions actually performed. Lempert used
Ehrlich’s well-known finding that each execution saves approximately eight
lives (1975) as the basis for his hypothesis that states with more executions
should enjoy lower homicide rates in the contiguous state comparisons.
Lempert found results almost identical to those reported by Sellin 25 years
earlier: There was no evidence that the death penalty or the use of
executions served as a deterrent to homicides.

A few studies have purported to demonstrate the deterrent effect claimed
by advocates, while others have failed to uncover such an effect. Works
that have demonstrated a deterrent effect include the studies of Ehrlich
(1975, 1977), Layson (1985), and Yunker (1976). Each author employed
national data in his analysis. Ehrlich’s well-publicized study demonstrated
a strong deterrent effect, indicating that approximately eight lives had been
saved for every execution that had occurred between 1933 and 1969. His
study was called into question on a number of grounds by Barnett (1981),
Bowers and Pierce (1975), Klein, Forst, and Filatov (1978), and McGahey

Among the primary criticisms of the Ehrlich work were the identification
restrictions and the lack of homogeneity of structural relations over time
(Klein et al., 1978). These are two serious problems in time series analyses
that focus on selection of criteria measures. Additional criticisms included
the use of data aggregated at the national level, the exogenous variables in
the equation, and the years included in the time series.

176 Scott H. Decker and Carol W. Kohfeld

A significant criticism of the applications of Ehrlich’s work to policy
questions has been the focus on his use of the states aggregated as a single
unit. This procedure has the unfortunate effect of commingling the effect
of the independent variables, most of which show considerable variation
from one jurisdiction to another. This produces the difficulty in locating
the source of policy effect noted earlier.

Some have contended that Ehrlich’s model was misspecified. In
particular, the concern exists that the Ehrlich study failed to include many
of the relevant control variables. Other criticisms of this work have argued
either that Ehrlich failed to use enough independent variables or that he
failed to include the correct ones. While one may quibble ad infinitum
about variable selection, this criticism has some merit since the relationship
between age and murder is a well-accepted tenet of criminology.

Ehrlich’s time series ends in 1969, just after the suspension of executions
by most states and shortly before the abolition of the death penalty by the
Supreme Court in 1972. Thus he has included a period of high homicide
rates with no executions at the tail of his time series. This is the segment of
his time series that produces high negative correlations. Indeed, Kleck
(1981), using a time series that extended into the 1970s, reported no
evidence for the deterrent effect described by Ehrlich.

While Ehrlich *s work represents the most sophisticated of those that
have shown a deterrent effect, it has been sufficiently criticized (see also
Barnett, 1981; Forst, 1977; Friedman, 1979; Klein et al., 1978; Passell,
1975) as to render its conclusions highly suspect. Indeed, Bowers’ 1984
replication of Ehrlich s analysis, using the same data and the same analytic
techniques, failed to find the same results. Yunker (1976) demonstrated an
even stronger deterrent effect than did Ehrlich. His method, data, and
results were rigorously criticized by Fox (1977), who noted severe
misspecification problems in the analysis. Thus it appears that those studies
that have demonstrated a negative relationship between executions and
homicides have been fraught with methodological problems.

Layson’s work (1985) is of particular relevance in this context. Layson
reanalyzed data similar to that used by Ehrlich in the 1975 study and
concluded that the initial findings of that work had understated the
deterrent effect of executions on homicides. His work is particularly
noteworthy because it used vital statistical data as the measure of
homicides, substituted OLS for the 2SLS procedure used by Ehrlich and
others, tested a variety of models including a variety of explanatory
variables, and used a moving average to establish the probability of
punishment. Layson concluded by noting, “The regression results
consistently support the deterrence hypothesis that increases in the
probabilities of arrest, conviction, and execution reduce the homicide rate.
Even murderers appear to obey the law of demand” (1985, p. 88).

Layson’s study was endorsed by the National Center for Policy Analysis,
and its findings were disseminated by that group. A response to the study.

Criminal Justice Review 177

formulated by Fox (1986), was presented to the Subcommittee on Criminal
Justice of the U.S. House of Representatives. Fox’s criticisms of Layson’s
work focused on the absence of a theoretical model for depicting how
homicides may be deterred by executions. Without this theoretical
underpinning, Layson, Ehrlich, and others who argue for a deterrent effect
cannot accurately document how deterrence works, much less document
that it exists at all. In short. Fox noted the inability of econometric models
using nationally aggregated data to capture the way in which sanctions
affect behavior. This general criticism was the primary basis for the

Additional criticisms of the kind that others have offered of Ehrlich’s
work were also made. These objections included concern over the quality
of the data, especially the measures of sanction, the time period included in
the study, the negative bias that results from using the same term in the
numerator of the dependent variable and in the denominator of a sanction
measure, and the aggregation bias in using macro data to identify micro
behavior. These criticisms constitute substantial refutation of the method
Layson used and of the findings determined by those methods. It is
important to note that these are substantially similar to the criticisms of the
Ehrlich work noted above. Fox concluded by agreeing with the assertion of
Brier and Feinberg (1980) that econometric analyses of deterrence had
added little to understanding the deterrent effect of sanctions on crime.

It is interesting to note that studies that have focused on a single state as
the unit of analysis have failed to find a deterrent effect. Bailey’s studies of
North Carolina (1978a), Utah (1978b), Oregon (1979a), California (1979b),
and Ohio (1979c) and Decker and Kohfeld’s study of Illinois (1984) have all
demonstrated a consistent finding—executions exert no deterrent effect on
homicide rates. Bailey’s work, however, is not without its own flaws. His
time series spanned the years 1910 to 1962, but he does not have 53 time
points, as would be expected if he used annual data. Instead, he used
sociodemographic data from the census years as proxies for the real values
for the two years preceding and following the diennial census years. Thus
he included only 25 data points, less than half the total number of years in
his time series. His last data point was 1962, more than 20 years ago, and
his data are therefore somewhat dated given the change in homicide rates
between 1962 and 1980. In addition. Bailey performed no test for
autocorrelation and did not include a consideration of the possible effect of
a time trend upon the analysis. Clearly, these methodological problems
suggest that a replication of these analyses that deals with these problems at
the state level would prove useful.

What is apparent from this literature review is that the overwhelming
majority of results show no deterrent effect. This is even more convincing
in terms of the policy debate regarding the death penalty. The burden of
proof must rest with the proponents of the death penalty. That is, those

178 Scott H. Decker and Carol W. Kohfeld

who contend that there is a deterrent effect should be pressed to
demonstrate the effect conclusively in the results of their work. This is
consistent with both the basic assumption of the scientific method (that is,
burden of proof on rejecting the null hypothesis) and the significance of
the penalty. The studies reported here point strongly to a single conclusion:
Executions have little impact on homicide rates.

This conclusion holds over a variety of studies and methodologies. Each
of the studies that have found a deterrent effect has been severely criticized
in the literature. The studies that have failed to support the deterrence
notion have been varied in level of aggregation, data, technique, control
variables, and site. Given the nature of social science analysis, it would be
inappropriate to depend on a single study as the basis for guiding policy for
such an important issue, as was the case with the Gregg decision. The
variations in method and data among the studies that fail to Hnd a
deterrent effect reflect the strength of those who claim that no deterrence


Some of the data for this study were provided by the U.S. Bureau of
Prisons. Specifically, the authors have received from that agency an
enumeration of the annual number of executions by state for the time
period 1931 to 1980. These data facilitate both the time series nature of the
analysis and the approach of using a single jurisdiction (states) as the unit
of analysis. The dependent variable, annual rate of murder and
nonnegligent manslaughter, was drawn from the Uniform Crime Reports.
Other exogenous variables were drawn from the Statistical Abstracts.
Selection of these variables was based on an analysis of the death penalty
and homicide literature. There was a dual criterion applied for the selection
decision: whether the variable was identified in previous research as having
both empirical and theoretical relevance to variations in homicide rates.
The controls included the proportion of the state population that was male
and aged 15 to 29, the proportion of the state population living in urban
areas, and the proportion of the state population in nonagricultural

As noted earlier, these five states were chosen because of their high
frequency of use of executions. Taken together, the five states account for
1,547 of the 3,863 executions performed in the United States between 1930
and 1981. Of the five states, Georgia has executed the most persons (366),
followed by New York (329), Texas (297), California (292), and North
Carolina (263). That these five states have been the most active can be
easily demonstrated by looking at the next highest state in terms of
frequency of executions, Florida, which executed 171 persons during the
same time period. The method of execution varies for these states.

Criminal Justice Review 179

Currently, Georgia and New York use electrocution, California and North
Carolina utilize lethal gas, and Texas makes use of lethal injection. All of
the states except New York had persons on death row awaiting execution as
of December 31, 1981. Indeed, during 1981 California had the greatest
number of new death row inmates (40) of any state in the nation. Texas,
Georgia, and California had the second, third, and fourth highest numbers
of inmates on death row as of December 31, 1981. Thus the picture offered
of these five states is that they not only have been active historically in
imposing the death penalty but are continuing to actively pursue the
imposition of this form of punishment.

The analysis performed here focuses on these states for a variety of
reasons. First, they were selected for inclusion because, as was documented
above, they represent the most active jurisdictions in the imposition of the
death penalty. As such, they represent important sites for examining the
impact of execution policy. Findings about the deterrent effect of
executions in these states also have broader implications than would be the
case for states with few executions. A second reason is more closely related
to the type of analysis presented here. Because executions are typically not
a frequent practice, states with a relatively low number of executions
represent cases that are more problematic for study. That is, when the
independent variable occurs infrequently, it is more difficult to draw
inferences from results. Therefore, from a strictly methodological
viewpoint, these five states are desirable units of analysis.

Clearly, such substantive differences underscore the need for single state
analyses. In addition, several policy-related reasons exist for choosing this
unit of analysis. It may be that when several states are aggregated the effect
of the use of executions becomes commingled. That is, if executions deter
in one or a few of the states in the aggregate, a strong negative effect in one
state may create the appearance that the policy has an overall deterrent
effect. The best example of this error occurs in studies that have aggregated
several states (Ehrlich, 1975). When a deterrent effect is shown to result,
one is in the difficult inferential position of having to claim that executions
in death penalty states have a deterrent effect on homicides in abolition
states. This is at best a tenuous position to maintain.


In light of these findings, several different analyses were performed. The
time series nature of these data made it possible to address the deterrence
issue from several vantage points. Mean homicide rates were compared for
three different eras corresponding to the death penalty experience in each
of the five states. These periods are referred to as (a) “use years,” in which
the death penalty was in force and executions were carried out, (b) “threat
years,” in which the death penalty was in force but there were no

180 Scott H. Decker and Carol W. Kohfeld

executions, and (c) “abolition years,” in which there was no death penalty
in force. This natural division allowed the assessment of three distinctively
different eras, each of which can be viewed as representing a particular
policy. This permitted a distinction to be drawn between the effect of the
actual use of the sanction and the effect of the mere threat of its use, in
addition to the more typical questions about the effect of its abolition.
These comparisons were elaborated in a number of ways, beginning with
zero-order correlations and then proceeding to testing for autocorrelation,
which lead to the judgment that generalized least-squares estimation is
required only in California.

In the search for consistency in deterrent effects for executions, three
modal variants were investigated. First, a polynomial in time was used as a
surrogate for all other controls. Second, regressions were run in each state
using executions timed contemporaneously and also timed with lag. Several
controls that had been demonstrated to have both theoretical and empirical
relevance to homicide rates were included in the models. Third, on the
hypothesis that contiguous states’ crime rates and executions might proxy
unmeasurable demographic factors in the five states, regressions were run
using such unique independent measures. These searches for consistency in
the effect of executions were uniformly unsuccessful.


In Table 1 the mean homicide rate for each state during the three eras
identified above is presented. This allows a comparison of the behavior of
the dependent variable during years in which there were executions (use
years), years in which the death penalty was in force but there were no
executions (threat years), and years in which the death penalty was not a
legally available sanction (abolition years). Because each state has executed
different numbers of prisoners, the threat and use estimates are different
for each state.

The most interesting observation to be derived from this table is
concerned with the lack of consistency of effect across the states. This
inconsistency may be linked to the fact that this type of analysis fails to
include a consideration of the control variables that may affect this
relationship. Deterrence theory would predict that the homicide rate should
descend from highest to lowest respectively in abolition, threat, and use
years. Thus the threat of the sanction should show a deterrent effect when
compared with years in which no executions were allowed. This result
occurs in only two of the jurisdictions. New York and California. In each
of these states there is a considerable increase in the dependent variable as
one moves from use to threat to abolition eras.

The results for North Carolina and Georgia, however, are somewhat
different. In each of these states the homicide rate is lowest for threat

Criminal Justice Review 181

Table 1

A Comparison of Mean Homicide Rates per 100,000 Residents for New York, California, North
Carolina, Georgia, and Texas, 1933-1980, for USE, THREAT, and ABOLITION Periods of Capital

New York

Standard Deviation

Standard Deviation

North Carolina
Standard Deviation

Standard Deviation

Standard Deviation

































years, followed by abolition years, and is highest for use years. This
suggests the rather anomalous conclusion that having the death penalty but
not using it is the most successful deterrent and that abolishing the death
penalty proves to be a greater deterrent than using it.

The results in Texas do not fit either of the patterns identified above. As
one compares the means for the three eras within Texas, the obvious
conclusion is that there are no differences in any of the eras. This set of
findings presents us with a pattern that will be replicated throughout this
paper: These five states show no consistent pattern for the effect of the
death penalty and of executions on homicide rates. In fact, the results are
often internally contradictory and frequently run counter to deterrence

The deterrence hypothesis suggests that sanctions—that is, executions-
should deter homicides. When the zero-order correlation coefficients
between murder and nonnegligent manslaughter rates and executions are
examined, we expect to find a negative relationship if the deterrence
hypothesis is correct. If executions have an immediate effect, then a
stronger relationship should be observed for the year in which the
executions occur; if the deterrent impact is delayed, then we might expect
the negative relationship to be stronger when the sanction variable is lagged
one or even two years. In Table 2, simple correlations are presented for the
five states for the years 1933 to 1980. In this set of tables simple
correlations between the murder and nonnegligent manslaughter rate and

182 Scott H. Decker and Carol W. Kohfeld

sanction measures (executions, executions lagged one year, and a dummy
variable—policy—that measures the presence or absence of executions) as
well as several demographic variables (discussed more completely below)
are examined.

The pattern within states is consistent for the sanction measure and its
lags. That is, the lagged and nonlagged executions and policy have the
same effect (sign) within each state. Across states, however, the results are
inconsistent. For the industrialized states. New York and California, the
relationship is both negative and significant for all three sanction measures.
It appears, at least for this simple relationship in these two states, that
executions deter murders and indeed continue to deter them for at least two
years after the executions occur. In the more rural Southern states of North
Carolina and Georgia, the correlations are just as strong but are positive,
while in Texas the relationships are positive but weaker. Thus, in these
states, executions and lagged measures of executions could be interpreted
as encouraging an increase in murder rates.

How does one explain these results? Rather anomalous conclusions
emerge if we take these correlations at face value. Executions deter murder
in some states and incite murder in others. An alternative explanation
might be that cultural differences between states account for the
differential impact of executions. This explanation is reminiscent of the
South and non-South differences that have been observed in a wide variety
of studies. Cultural factors are difficult to measure, however, partly
because they are not readily identifiable. Furthermore, an appeal to
cultural factors is usually a confession of ignorance or inability to measure.
We pursue a path of explicit measurement here.

One likely explanation is that simple correlations are really model
artifacts that are evidence of model misspecification. It is well understood
that time series can contain trends that are not independent of the processes
being studied and can influence the correlations by their omission from the
model. Reporting practices vary for some offenses, both across states and
over time within states. These problems have been documented in a variety
of sources. But reporting differences are less problematic with homicides,
both within and across states, because murder tends to be a more
uniformly defined and fully reported crime. There are well-documented
and obvious time trends for violent crimes, and murder rates tend to track
similarly to other violent crimes.

It is not the case, however, that crime rates have simply risen everywhere
across this 50-year period. In Figure 1, the murder and nonnegligent
manslaughter rates (murders per 100,000 population) are plotted for North
Carolina and New York across the 50-year period. During the first 30
years. New York’s homicide rate stays essentially constant while North
Carolina’s can be characterized as steadily decreasing. Both tend to
increase during the years of rapidly increasing violent crime (1960 to 1973)

Criminal Justice Review 183

Table 2

Correlation Coefficients for Murder and Nonnegligent Manslaughter Rates (MNMAN) With
Executions (EXEC), Executions Lagged One Year (LEXEC), Proportion of the Population Urban
(URBP), Level of Industrialization (INDUS), the Occurrence of Executions, a Dummy Variable
(POLICY), and the Proportion of the Population Male, Aged 15 Through 29 (M1529P) for the Five
States—Texas, North Carolina, New York, Georgia, and California: 1933-1980





























































































184 Scott H. Decker and Carol W. Kohfeld

and settle down during the late 1970s and converge to approximately the
same rate in 1980. Thus, across the observed time period. North Carolina’s
rate starts higher and decreases, while New York’s rate starts lower and
increases. To better understand the anomalous results from the simple
correlations and the time trends, we turn now to regression models that
include some demographic and socioeconomic control variables.


Preliminary results using ordinary least-squares estimation showed that
the autocorrelation that is often found in time series was a problem in these
data with models that did not include demographic and socioeconomic
control variables. For all the states except California, with the better-
specified models including controls, the autocorrelation coefficients were
below the .3 cutoff (Hanushek & Jackson, 1977), where correcting for
autocorrelation would make little difference in the results. The autocorrela-
tion problem in California was corrected by using the generalized least-
squares procedure provided in the statistical package SAS. This procedure
reduced the autocorrelation coefficient for California to within acceptable
limits but did not change the results obtained using ordinary least-squares
in any important substantive respect. The models reported in the tables
were estimated by ordinary least-squares for all states except California.
The models for California were estimated using the SAS generalized least-
squares procedure.

Simple models for each state that included only time as a series of
increasing integers and a sanction measure as the independent variables
yielded inconclusive results. Time was included in these limited models as a
surrogate for all the other controls that were not included. The models
were run once with the number of executions in the current year as the
sanction measure and once with the number of executions from the
previous year as the sanction measure (that is, sanctions lagged one year).
There is some argument that executions have their impact over a longer
period of time, and thus it is argued that executions of last year have more
impact this year. The effects of sanctions and of sanctions lagged, when
controlled in the simple models with a time variable, continued to have an
inconsistent impact across these five states, and, as mentioned earlier,
autocorrelation was a serious problem. The uneasy result still remained
that executions deterred murder in Georgia, incited murder in North
Carolina, and had essentially zero impact in California, New York, and

An alternative to including time as a simple linear function is to fit a
polynomial of chronological time to the homicide rates for each state, for
the period that executions were used but not thereafter. This included the
years through the early 1960s for all five states. Models were examined that

Criminal Justice Review 185


186 Scott H. Decker and Carol W. Kohfeld

included time, time squared, and time cubed, with the sanction variable
measured both in the current year and in the preceding year. The results
continued to be inconsistent across states. The only significant relationship
between the sanction measure and homicide rates was in North Carolina,
but it was positive. For the rest of the states, the results were an
inconsistent mixture of nonsignificant positive and negative relationships
with no clear pattern emerging.

For a more completely specified model, some of the variables that have
been shown in studies to be significantly related to murder rates were
included. The subgroup of the population that is most likely to be involved
with murders is that of young men between the ages of 15 and 29. Higher
murder rates in some states might be due to disproportionate numbers of
young men in the population. Thus, controlling for the proportion of the
population in this age group should help in making a determination as to
whether executions have significant deterrent effect on murder rates. A
measure of males in these states between the ages of 15 and 29 is included
here as a proportion of the population as a whole (Messner, 1983).

Another change that occurred during this time period is increased
urbanization (Archer & Gartner, 1984). In Northern states, urbanization is
usually associated with increased crime rates. In Southern states, however,
it is the more rural-dominated culture that is associated with increased
violent crime rates. Urbanization is related to the murder rates in the state
models; it seems important to include it as a control for these changes in
living environments in these states over this time period so that its impact
on violent crime is not confused with that of sanctions.

Similarly, some measure of economic conditions should be included to
control for their change throughout this time period. The first choice for
an economic measure was unemployment. But unemployment measures are
not available for states annually before 1960, and there is considerable
doubt about how well these measures are estimated across the years and
across the states as well as within the states. Since the time series for
murder rates exists from 1933, it was decided that another measure of
economic enterprise, which was available as early as 1939, would be used.
A crude measure of labor force composition was chosen, which was
calculated by norming the number of nonagricultural employees to the
total population in each state annually. This still truncated the time series,
but less than would have occurred using an unemployment measure.
Although this is a rough measure, it should control for major changes in
the labor force structure that occurred especially in the South during this
time period.

Thus, in the more complete model used to estimate the effect of
sanctions upon murder rates, the following are included as control
measures: the percentage of males between the ages of 15 and 29, the
percentage of urbanization, and a measure of the labor force composition.

Criminal Justice Review 187

Two versions of the model are estimated for each state: one that includes
the three controls and executions in the current year and one that includes
the same three controls and executions lagged one year. These models are
estimated using ordinary least-squares for all states except California,
where a generalized least-squares procedure was used, and the results are
reported in Tables 3 and 4.

First, note that these models explain a significant amount of the variance
in homicide rates over time in each state as evidenced by the R^ This is not
surprising, since in previous studies and in the zero-order correlations
presented in Table 2 most of these variables have been shown to be related
to murder rates at least cross-sectionally, and in some cases over time.
What is important for our purposes is to note the impact, or perhaps we
should say the lack of impact, of sanctions on murder rates when controls
are instituted. In Table 3, where executions in the current year are
included, the signs for the sanction coefficients are the same as in the
simple correlations (Table 2), except for Georgia where the positive simple
correlation turns negative in the presence of controls. The positive

Table 3

Results of Generalized Least-Squares Regressions for California and for Ordinary Least-Squares for
New York, North Carolina, Georgia, and Texas

[The dependent variable is Murder and Nonnegligent Manslaughter Rate (per 100,000 population)—
MNMAN. The independent variables are Proportion of Population in Nonagricultural Employment
(INDUS), Percent Population Which Is Male Between 15 and 29 (M1529P), Proportion Urban
(URBP), and Number of Executions (EXEC). All are annual measures.]




























‘Unstandardized Regression Coefficients
“Standard Error Regression Coefficient
‘t scores

* p < .OS
** p < .01

• • • p < .001




























-3 .20″


3 .88*”

188 Scott H. Decker and Carol W. Kohfeld

Table 4

Results for Generalized Least-Squares Regressions for California and for Ordinary Least-Squares for
New York, North Carolina, Georgia, and Texas.

[The model reported here is essentially the same as that presented in Table 3 with the exception that the
sanction variable (Executions) is lagged one year—LEXEC]







“Standard Error
t scores

* p < .05
** p < .01

*** p < .001








(11 .1)

3 .32″












Regression Coefficients
Regression Coefficient






























correlations between homicide and measures of sanction is consistent with
the finding of “brutalization” of Bowers and Pierce (1980). While it would
be premature to label these findings as evidence confirming the existence of
such an effect, this is an issue that should be addressed by data able to
measure such processes more effectively.

Only the sanction coefficient in New York is both negative and
significant and thus supportive of deterrence theory. In addition, the
uneasy conclusion from Table 2, that executions incite murder in North
Carolina, is tempered because the coefficient is no longer significant.
Executions continue to show differential but insignificant impact across the
states, except for New York, even when young male population,
urbanization, and labor force composition measures are included in the
model. One would be hard pressed, using this evidence from the states that
have made the most use of executions, to recommend using the death
penalty as a deterrent to murder, except in New York.

From Table 4, where the sanction measure was lagged one year, we find
no significant differences in the amount of variance explained in the
murder rates across states. Again, sanctions—executions lagged one year—
do not have a significant impact upon murder rates in any state except New

Criminal Justice Review 189

York. For New York, lagged sanctions have a significant {p < .001) and
negative impact on murder rates. The lagged sanction measure is now
negatively related in Texas and positively related in Georgia, which is the
reverse of the nonlagged measure results. In neither model, however, is the
effect of sanctions significant, and therefore the sign changes can be
attributed to chance or cited as evidence of an unstable relationship
between sanctions and homicide rates. Again we must conclude, at least
from the evidence reported here, that executions do not exert any long-term
deterrent effect on murder rates.

One other analysis was attempted to try to find consistency in the
deterrent effect of sanctions across these states. Exogenous variation within
each of the five states was proxied by including execution and homicide
rates of a similar contiguous state. Models were examined using both
current measures and lagged (one year) measures for the contiguous states:
for New York, Pennsylvania; for North Carolina, South Carolina and
Virginia; for Georgia, Florida; for Texas, Louisiana; and, for California,
Arizona. A good case can be made for similarity for all pairs except
perhaps California and Arizona. Once more, the results were inconsistent
across states. The sanction measures were negative and significant for New
York and California, which supports deterrence, but for Georgia and
North Carolina the relationships were positive and insignificant, and for
Texas the relationship was both positive and significant.


What is one to make of the several different sets of results presented
here? The first and most obvious comment to be made must point to the
anomalies among the findings. A consistent pattern of findings within each
state was not observed; nor can such statements be made about the states
as a group. It would be expected that a certain commonality of outcomes
should emerge for these five states, given their high level of activity in the
area of executions. The conclusion to be drawn from the early section of
the analysis—where a deterrent effect was observed in some jurisdictions,
the opposite effect was observed in others, and in still others no effect was
discernible—is that the penalty has a varying effect depending on where it
is measured. A deterrent effect, however, was observed for executions only
in the preliminary examinations of means and correlations and in the
regression analysis for New York. This renders the disparities identified in
the early section of the paper somewhat easier to explain.

When a more appropriately specified model is presented, the effect of
executions on homicides is significant only in New York. That is,
sociodemographic variables account for the variation in homicide rates in
four of the five states. The sanction measure, executions, accounts for
virtually none of the explanatory power of the models. This conclusion

190 Scott H. Decker and Carol W. Kohfeld

holds true, whether lagged or unlagged effects are examined, and is robust
for varying specifications designed to deal with autocorrelation problems.
When surrogate demographic controls are introduced using contiguous
state homicide and execution measures, the results sustain themselves
unimpaired. In short, we could not remove the inconsistent pattern of
execution effects.

In this respect these results are consistent with the majority that have
preceded them. Of particular note in this context are the studies by Bailey
for California (1979b) and North Carolina (1978a), two states included in
this analysis. Bailey found no deterrent effect, and the bulk of the variation
was explained by sociodemographic variables. In many ways, such findings
should not be surprising. Even in these five active states there have been
relatively few executions over a 50-year period, compared to the number of
homicides. In addition, there is a great gap in the certainty of application
of the penalty. It may also be that the level of analysis of the current
approach faiils to capture the real essence of deterrence, if one argues that
only by measuring individual perceptions of the certainty of apprehension
and the severity of punishment will deterrence questions ever be adequately
addressed. One conclusion seems inescapable from the results presented
here: Executions have failed to exert a consistent deterrent impact on
homicides in the five states most likely to execute.


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9. L
V – -· .’ ./. I#

Execution chamber
for lethal injections
at Holman Correctional
Facility in Altmore, Alabama


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– :1· ~ ~•.1 8 Ell¢Newl]OrkEilnes UPFRONT • UPFRONTMAGAZINE.COM
W .


fq WATCH A VIDEO The Eighth Amendment

Amendment to the Constitution,
which prohibits “cruel and unusual

– 2 /~/ 1/ *P U/ Convicted killers punishments,” allow it? And is death the
1~ Janeen Snyder and Michael right punishment for the worst crimes?

~ ,~ Thornton were sentenced to A majority of Americans-54 percent,
die. But California has placed
a moratorium on executions.

according to a Gallup poll-still say they
support the death penalty for convicted
murderers. But that number has dropped
considerably since 1994, when 80 percent

– I ichelle Curran, 16, was 23rd state to abolish the death penalty. of Americans supported it.
1 ~ ~ walking to her high It’s one of seven states that have “What we’re seeing is the death

school in Las Vegas on the eliminated capital punishment in the past penalty withering on the vine without
~ morning of April 4, 2001, decade. Besides California, two more any need for the Supreme Court to be
~ when she was kidnapped states that allow the death penalty- involved,” says Brandon Garrett, a law

E by 21-year-old Janeen Snyder and her Oregon and Pennsylvania-have officially professor at Duke University who’s
~ 45-year-old boyfriend, Michael Thornton halted all executions (see map, p. 11). written a book about the death penalty.
& For 13 days, the couple abused and Even in the places where the death “There are only a handful of counties in
M tortured Michelle before they shot her penalty remains oIl the books, it’s being the country that are imposing the death
2 in the head and left her body in a horse used less. Fifteen death penalty states penalty. We shouldn’t even talk about
E trailer in Southern California. haven’t executed anyone in the past five ‘death penalty states.’ We should talk:
3 In 2006, Snyder and Thornton years. New death sentences nationwide about ‘death penalty counties.

& were both convicted of murder and are down from a high of 315 in 1996 to But supporters of capital punishment
5 sentenced to death. 18 in 2021. Annual executions see it as a critical part of ourSeven”It was sick what these people did to have dropped from 98 in 1999 justice system.
5 her,” Michelle’s mother, Candy Curran, to 11 in 2021. states have For some crimes, anything

M told reporters after the conviction. “They “The death penalty is abolished less is not justice,” says Kent

j got what they deserved.” disappearing in most of the the death Scheidegger of the Criminal
& Michelle’s torture and murder is country-that’s been a 25-year penalty in Justice Legal Foundation, a
~ exactly the kind of horrific crime that trend,” says Robert Dunham, the past victims’ rights group. “For the
A the death penalty is intended for. But executive director of the Death decade. families of victims, there is

E two decades later, those sentences have Penalty Information Center, a sense of relief and finality

j yet to be carried out, and Snyder and which opposes the practice. “There are when the death penalty is actually
~ Thornton remain on death row. In 2019, only a handful of states in which it is carried out.”
* California Governor Gavin Newsom put actually being carried out.” Scheidegger also believes that
6 a moratorium on all executions in the putting a convicted murderer to death
1 state, declaring that capital punishment ‘Cruel and Unusual’? is the only certain way to prevent that
i is fundamentally flawed. There has long been a debate over person from doing harm again.

5 California’s moratorium is part of the ethics and usefulness of capital Americans have long debated the
3 a broader move away from the death punishment. Should the government morality of capital punishment. Many

3 penalty. Last year, Virginia became the put people to death? Does the Eighth death penalty supporters interpret the

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NOVEMBER 21, 2022 9

biblical phrase “an eye for an eye and the death penalty. According to Amnesty it were arbitrary and inconsistent.
a tooth for a tooth” to mean that those International, a human rights group, Instead, the Court imposed a
vho commit murder should meet the the countries that execute the most moratorium on executions until states

same fate. people are China, Iran, Egypt, Saudi could ensure that it was being reserved
Death penalty supporters argue that Arabia, and Syria. (In 2021, the U.S. for the worst offenders. The death

capital punishment serves as a deterrent, ranked eighth on the list.) penalty was reintroduced in 1976.
stopping would-be killers, since they fear “The United States is totally an Since then, at least 1,550 people

the possibility of execution. And many outlier,” says Carol Steiker, a professor at have been put to death, most by lethal
think that putting a killer to death can Harvard Law School with expertise in the injection. Looking for a method of
bring some closure and sense of justice death penalty. “We’re the only Western execution that would be more humane
to a victim’s family. developed country that still has and less gruesome than the

Opponents argue that kining is wrong the death penalty.” ‘For some electric chair or hanging,
no matter who’s doing it, even if it’s crimes, states turned to lethal
the government, and that it’s too final a A Long History anything injection in the 1980s.
punishment in a world where mistakes The death penalty in the U.S. less is not But in recent years,

can happen. Indeed, 190 death row dates to colonial times, when justice.’ it’s become increasingly
inmates have been exonerated since European settlers brought difficult to obtain the drugs
1973, based on DNA and other evidence. capital punishment to the New World. required for this method of execution.

Opponents also point to statistics that For centuries, hanging was the most Since 2016, all major American drug

indicate the death penalty discriminates common method (see “Methods of manufacturers have refused to sell drugs
against African Americans, who Execution,” p. 9). By the 1950s, most for the purpose of executions. This has

make up about 14 percent of the U.S. states were using either the gas chamber forced prison systems to try untested
population but more than 40 percent or electric chair. drug combinations and to get the drugs
of death row inmates. In 1972, the Supreme Court seemed from compounding pharmacies-loosely

Internationally, more than 70 percent to be on the verge of declaring capital regulated labs that mix drugs to order.
of the world’s countries, including all of punishment unconstitutional, because In recent years, a number of botched
Europe except Belarus, have abolished it said the standards for applying executions have taken hours to carry out

u6re Court ir~ 2022 |**0
B *b ././

1 . 1.. 1. ,

1,_14 1 ~#14] 1 1 1 0 tk~Hi~r:·5 1*. fl ‘–L’ r, ‘ 1 1, {¥], .p1972 2, 131 1 imili&98281 i VIFurman v. Georgia
~ 4 N ~ —–~. [lena Magan ~

Imposes a nationwide 1-.
moratorium on the death 1 4 – -:Il- 9″1 Leans liberal I,~1.*- , 14′.1 .4 9:, f.0„!~:4 j. ./3,3~1 .el
penalty, which the Court –

+ Arru
says is being applied in an ~.Illgi~ ‘””‘~~ Chief Justice Ketanji Brown -7,111 r FI,1(11] t tl k’Dll
arbitrary and inconsistent John Roberts Jackson ~0
manner. Leans conservative Leans liberal

r’.9 . 91976 Gregg v. Georgia ; .

Reinstates the death
penalty after states 2005 Roper v. Simmons 2008 TODAY
address the Court’s Kennedy v. Lou/s/ana
concerns. Bars the execution With conservative justices

of juvenile offenders. Restricts the death penalty holding six of the Court’s

2002 to crimes in which the nine seats, experts say the
Atkins v. Virginia 2008 Baze v. Rees victim is killed or to cases Supreme Court is unlikely

‘ of treason. in the near future to
Bars the execution Rules that execution by declare capital punishment
of the mentally disabled. lethal injection is not a cruel unconstitutional.

and unusual punishment.


VT.-~ ME
9 MI



AK ™’ ,1~~~0 on executions

~ ~ Death penalty
Death penalty, but
current moratorium

No death penalty

7~ Numbers indicate
executions carried

Alaska and Hawaii are not drawn out since Jan . 2018 ;
to scale or placed in their no number means
proper geographic positions. SOURCE : Death Penalty Information Center, Sept . 15 , 2022 no executions .

and seemed to cause extreme suffering, in Virginia. “I never thought rd see this.” penalty is giving the state way more
further stining debate on whether the Virginia’s then-governor, Ralph power than it should have.”
method is unnecessarily cruel. Northam, noted racial disparities in the Despite the dwindling use of capital

Over the past 20 years, the U.S. state’s use of the death penalty: During punishment, legal experts say the current
, Supreme Court has issued several the 20th century, 296 of the 377 inmates Supreme Court isn’t likely to rule against

rulings restricting use of the death Virginia executed for murder-or about the death penalty anytime soon. But
penalty (see ‘Key Rulings,” leA). In 2002, 79 percent-were Black. the Court may not be able to ignore the
the Court barred the execution of the Bills to abolish the death penalty are trends on the ground forever.
mentally disabled. Three years later, the pending in Ohio and Pennsylvania. In In assessing whether a punishment
Court ruled that capital punishment for both states, a bipartisan group is constitutional, Steiker says
juvenile offenders is unconstitutional. of Republicans and Democrats ‘The death the Court looks at whether

are leading the efforts to end penalty it’s “consistent with evolving
A Turning Point? capital punishment. is giving standards o f decency.” In
Many death penalty experts see Virginia’s Increasingly, some the state other words, she says, the
decision to abolish the death penalty last conservative Republicans, who way more less capital punishment is
year as particularly significant. Virginia have traditionally supported power than being used, the more it looks
had a 413-year history with capital the death penalty, are opposing it should out of step with current
punishment during which it executed it now. For some, it costs have.’ standards of decency.
more than 1,300 inmates, more than any too much and is therefore “The really, really
other state. In the past 50 years, Virginia fiscally irresponsible. Others see it as reduced use of the death penalty
carried out more executions than any inappropriate government intervention. lays the groundwork for an eventual
other state except Texas. “I don’t trust the government to constitutional abolition,” Steiker says.

“It’s astonishing that a state deliver my mail on time-why in the “Eventually, that will be how American
like Virginia …a state that so world would I trust the government abolition happens. And I do think it will

~ enthusiastically embraced the death with literally my life?” says Demetrius happen, but not in my generation.” •
g penalty is abolishing it,” says Todd Minor of Conservatives Concerned
0 Peppers, a professor at Roanoke College About the Death Penalty. “The death With reporting by Hailey Fuchs of The Times.

NOVEMBER 21, 2022 11

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