Capital Punishment: Questions for Death Penalty Repeal Supporters

–Richard E. Vatz

     In 2007, New Jersey became the first state to legislatively abolish the death penalty.  Saved from execution, among others, was Jesse Timmendequas, who, according to CNN, “lur[ed] Megan Kanka into his Hamilton Township home to see a puppy, then rap[ed] her and strangl[ed] her.
     As a professor of persuasion for over 40 years, I have been struck by not just the illogic of those legislators seeking repeal of the death penalty.  According to, Sen. Bobby Zirkin argues that his change of heart on the issue is based on the utterly selective and unrepresentative “testimony of some victims who said the death penalty provided little closure because of lengthy appeals” and the irrelevant observation of the fact that “the state hasn’t executed anyone in nearly a decade.
     But I have been more taken by the lack of repeal supporters’ publicly engaging the critical arguments at all.
     Please allow me to ask the following important questions to legislators and others, questions which should be addressed – or should have been addressed — before the state of Maryland repeals capital punishment.   Failing that, these are questions for which voters in a referendum should seek the answers before sustaining the end of executions.

1.     If there is a Newtown in Maryland with children massacred, will you stand by your vote for the repeal of the death penalty?
2.     If a convicted 1stdegree murderer orders killings from prison, how would you stop this?  What should be the punishment if one or more is carried out?  Why would a murderer necessarily ever stop if there is no death penalty?
3.     If a convicted 1stdegree murderer kills inmates or prison guards, what should be the punishment?
4.     If you base your vote on public opinion polls, does your position vary if that measured opinion changes?  After Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing, a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup poll indicated that 81% of the public felt he should be executed.
5.     If you argue that capital punishment is racially biased, would you agree that the major source of that conclusion, the Paternoster study, argues that the race of the defendant does not produce a disproportionate use of the death penalty, only the race of the victim does so.  Do you not agree that this could be changed and is largely an effect of the disparities in geographical use of the death penalty?
6.     If you argue that capital punishment is not a deterrent, are you moved by the fact that The New York Times, hardly a bastion of capital punishment support, reported in 2007 that according to about a dozen studies “executions save lives. For each inmate put to death, the studies say, 3 to 18 murders are prevented.”?  A study by Emory University echoes this position and argues that decreasing the time between conviction and execution would also save lives.  This may be because executions delayed create the perception of no executions.

     The lack of implementation and the lengthy time of disposition of executions should not be the basis for eliminating them.  It should energize Maryland to shorten the period between conviction and execution.
     The fear of a mistake can be alleviated by raising the standard of proof, if need be, to “beyond any doubt.”  That would also eliminate the possibility of serial murderers continuing their grisly behavior.
     Even a death penalty unused, but utilized for plea bargaining, is superior to not having its availability.
     Regardless, to act in such a definitive way to save murderers from executions deserves a full addressing of the issues, not a rush to irresponsible action.


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     Professor Vatz has taught Persuasion for decades at Towson University, is author of The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion (Kendall Hunt, 2012, 2013) and will be giving a keynote address on the book at the Southern States Communication Association Convention in April.


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