Now that Joshua Komisarjevsky is declared guilty of murdering Dr. William Petit Jr.'s wife and two daughters in a Cheshire home invasion, it's easy to understand why most Americans hope he is put to death for his sadistic crime.
Unfortunately, if death is the verdict, justice will neither be swift or painless. In Connecticut, most capital offenders live out their lives on death row. Even more, Connecticut's death penalty might not even be an option for capital offenders in the future.
European governments abolished death sentences regardless of public opinion. "There is barely a country in Europe where the death penalty was abolished in response to public opinion rather than in spite of it," said Joshua Marshall in The New Republic. It's too bad that majority opinion in Connecticut will likely be ignored. True, majorities are not always right, but when an issue has that much support among citizens — Connecticut's government should pay more attention. Gallup's latest poll has 64 percent of Americans supporting capital punishment while 29 percent oppose (for overly sadistic crimes, support rises to 80 percent). In Connecticut, the latest Quinnipiac Poll shows 67 percent of people favor the death penalty for murder.
Half of Americans believe capital punishment is not imposed enough, while just 18 percent think it is imposed too much, according to a 2010 Gallup poll. This mirrors Connecticut, where capital punishment is almost unused: 10 convicted murderers are awaiting execution (one for 23 years) and 19 have long-standing death penalty cases. Only one person has been executed in the state since 1960. Could this lack of swift justice be the cause of future murders? Can execution save lives?
Dr. David Muhlhausen testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee that, over the last 10 years, several studies have found that capital punishment deters murders, saving three to 18 lives for every person executed. Dr. Naci Mocan, a death penalty opponent and economics professor at the University of Colorado at Denver, co-authored two studies re-examining evidence. The studies evaluate state data on the influence of individuals removed from death row, those executed and those who received commuted sentences between 1977 and 1999. Dr. Mocan concluded the effect of one execution is five fewer murders.
Other studies show similar results, according to Associated Press reports:
• "Each execution deters an average of 18 murders, according to a 2003 nationwide study by professors at Emory University."
• "The Illinois moratorium on executions in 2000 led to 150 additional homicides over four years following, according to a 2006 study by professors at the University of Houston."
• "Speeding up executions would strengthen the deterrent effect. For every 2.75 years cut from time spent on death row, one murder would be prevented, according to a 2004 study by an Emory University professor."
In response to such reports, liberal law professor and death penalty opponent Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago commented, "Abolitionists or others, like me, who are skeptical about the death penalty haven't given adequate consideration to the possibility that innocent life is saved by the death penalty."
More studies are needed and old studies should be re-examined. If it is likely that innocent lives are saved by executing (not just convicting) cold-blooded murderers, then Connecticut leaders must consider the ramifications of abolishing the death penalty.
Professor John McAdams from Marquette University makes a strong case on this point: "If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of … innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former."
We owe it to Dr. Petit and other relatives of murder victims to review the facts. If the death penalty saves lives, then execute people like Joshua Komisarjevsky. Don't just convict them. Most people weigh the costs and benefits of their actions and, for murder, the cost should be as great as possible.
Chris DeSanctis is an adjunct professor in the Department of Government and Politics at Sacred Heart University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.