CPRC: “Another Round in the Death-Penalty Debate,” Correcting mistakes in the Washington Post

May 13, 2014 | Featured

On Sunday in the Washington Post, Radley Balko attacked a recent piece that CPRC’s John Lott had on the death penalty. John Lott’s piece that responds to Balko starts this way:

The death-penalty debate goes on. After a piece that I wrote about the debate last week, National Review’s Charles C. W. Cooke wrote a response, followed later by a much stronger attack by the Washington Post’s Radley Balko.

Cooke’s response was philosophical and drew a distinction between killing someone in self-defense and using the death penalty, though given the evidence that the death penalty deters murders and thus saves lives, that distinction isn’t as clear as he thinks.

Balko, a blogger/reporter for the Washington Post, based his reply on empirical evidence. He puts a lot of faith in studies by death-penalty opponents. Let me address his major points in turn:

— “It’s important to factor in the severity of the crime. And when a black defendant and a white defendant are convicted of murders with similar aggravating circumstances, the black defendant is significantly more likely to get the death penalty.”

Over the period from 1977 to 2011, the rate of aggravating circumstances for murders was higher for black defendants for murder than it was for whites. Yet, despite that and with whites accounting for fewer murders than blacks (whites commit about 46.8 percent of all murders committed by whites and blacks), whites account for 57 percent of the white and black prisoners sentenced to death for murder.

Finally, even after being sentenced to death at a higher rate than blacks, whites on death row over the decades have had a significantly higher probability of actually being executed than blacks. Over the years from 1977 to 2011, 65 percent of the total number of whites and blacks who have been executed have been white.

This last point is particularly important, since everyone on death row has been convicted of murder with aggravating circumstances. If there is any bias, it is in the opposite direction that Balko claims.

— “DNA testing has shown that the criminal justice system is flawed — more flawed than most of the public had probably thought. Lott tries to dismiss these concerns, and it’s here that his statistics really get screwy. . . . I don’t know where Lott gets the number 34. I can’t find it anywhere at the Innocence Project link he provides. The actual number of people convicted of murder who were later exonerated by DNA testing is 104.” . . .