Some studies have failed to find that executions have any success in deterring homicides. But according to sociologist Steven Stack of Auburn University in the American Sociological Review (August 1987, vol. 52, pp. 532-540), those studies have been methodologically flawed by the highly questionable assumption “that the public is more or less aware of executions and that they are well-informed of every execution.” They have therefore neglected to test “the thesis that the deterrent effect of executions is a function of the amount of media exposure given to executions.” “If the public is unaware of executions,” Stack notes, “they can have very little impact on homicide.”

Setting out to compensate for that error. Stack compared murder rates in months with highly (and nationally) publicized execution stories with those in months without such stories. Over a period from 1950 to 1980, he found that in 16 different months in which widely-reported executions took place, an average of 30 fewer people were murdered than in an ordinary month. Publicity, as Stack hypothesized, was a vital ingredient. Nearly 600 little publicized executions in the study had scant effect on the homicide rate. But “[i]n all but four cases, the expected number of homicides in months with [well-publicized] execution stories is greater than the actual number—results we would anticipate from the standpoint of the deterrence view.”

Stack cautions against too-high expectations for deterring murder with capital punishment, noting among other things that “as executions become more common, the amount of press coverage tends to decline,” and predicting that an expanded number of executions “will perform more of a retribution than a deterrence function.” That is not as bad as it sounds. Retribution must be the first object of the death penalty; if it were not the just reward of murderers, then no amount of deterrence would justify its application. But it is also good to know that some 30 American citizens will remain alive because Theodore Bundy, as of sunrise last January 24, does not. (MK)