Eric Zahnd, Platte County Prosecuting Attorney
Eric Zahnd has served as the Platte County Prosecuting Attorney since 2003. His office handles thousands of cases each year, ranging from traffic offenses to first degree murder. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the National District Attorneys Association and was recognized as Missouri’s Prosecutor of the Year in 2014. He obtained his undergraduate degree from William Jewell College, where he studied in the Oxbridge Honors Program and spent a year at Cambridge University. He graduated with honors from Duke Law School and also holds an M.A. in Philosophy from Duke University.
The Death Penalty Saves Lives
Pretend with me that you are a chief of police. A gunman has taken a class of 19 students hostage.
At 10:59 a.m., the gunman communicates with you via cellphone, saying he plans to shoot and kill a student each hour on the hour. At 11:00 a.m., he makes good on his promise, killing a student.
At 11:59 a.m., a police sharpshooter tells you he has a clear shot through a window and knows he can shoot and kill the gunman, saving 18 students’ lives.
What would you do?
I have asked that question to hundreds of people during presentations on the death penalty. All but a handful have said they would give the command to shoot and kill the gunman. Many of the people who say they would give that command ardently oppose the death penalty.
I support the death penalty for many reasons. One of those reasons is that I believe the death penalty saves lives, in much the same way as the police chief can save 18 lives by giving the command to shoot and kill the gunman. I believe the death penalty saves lives through deterrence.
Common sense bears this out. As political scientist James Q. Wilson observed, we regularly weigh costs and benefits, rewards and penalties. For example, we shop for bargains, place children in “time out” when they do wrong, and worry that rising interest rates might slow economic growth.1
Anecdotal evidence also supports the idea. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who served on a California parole board, tells the story of woman she considered for parole. The woman had robbed a grocery store with an unloaded weapon. When Senator Feinstein asked why the gun was unloaded, the woman responded “So I would not panic, kill somebody, and get the death penalty.” Senator Feinstein’s conclusion: “That was firsthand testimony directly to me that the death penalty . . . was in fact a deterrent.” 2
At least 17 scientific studies indicate that the death penalty has a deterrent effect. A leading study published in the American Law and Economics Review collected data from 3054 counties over a 20-year period. Using sophisticated multiple regression analysis, the study concluded that, on average, each execution results in 18 fewer murders.3
If we conclude the death penalty deters, we are confronted by a stark decision with real consequences
On the one hand, we can carry out death sentences. In so doing, we will execute only those defendants who have been found guilty of a small subset of first-degree murders by unanimous juries that have taken the extra step to recommend a death sentence. The executions will occur only after the defendants have exhausted their rights of appeal and been afforded every possible due process right.
On the other hand, we can halt executions that would be handed down for the most brutal and shocking murders. In so doing, at least one study indicates that for each defendant we refuse to execute, we will condemn 18 people to random and violent deaths without any due process whatsoever.
The only material difference between the hypothetical of the police chief and what I am now suggesting is that we know the identity of the 18 students the gunman intends to shoot and when he intends to kill them. But if we accept that innocent people will be killed if we do not take advantage of the death penalty’s deterrent effect, does it really matter that we don’t know who those innocent people will be or when they will die?
In the end, I support the death penalty for the same reason cited by many of those who oppose it. Like Sister Helen Prejean, I believe life is sacred and should be protected, especially the lives of those who are most vulnerable.4
1 James Q. Wilson, Thinking About Crime (Rand House rev. ed. 1983) p. 121 (“To assert that ‘deterrence doesn’t work’ is tantamount to either denying the plainest facts of everyday life or claiming that would-be criminals are utterly different from the rest of us.”).
2 141 Cong. Rec. S7662 (June 5, 1995).
3 Hashem Dezhbakhsh et al., Does Capital Punishment Have a Deterrent Effect? New Evidence from Postmoratorium Panel Data (Fall 2003) 5 American Law & Economics Review 2, pp. 344-376. Death penalty opponents question the results of this study and the others. I’m no statistician, but given what we know about human nature and the anecdotal evidence, it makes sense that the death penalty deters. And if we decide deterrence does not work, we might as well dismantle the criminal justice system, because it is predicated on the idea that increasing penalties increases deterrence.
4 Sister Helen Prejean, The World Can’t Wait, available at http://www.sisterhelen.org/the-world-cant-wait/ (last visited February 22, 2017) (“I believe that all of life is sacred and must be protected, especially in the vulnerable stages at the beginning of life and its end.”).