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Does the Death Penalty Save Lives? Death Penalty Debate Rages

Economists and legal scholars, after many years, are now interested in debating whether capital punishment is an effective deterrent to homicide, sparking new discussion of one argument made by death penalty proponents as support for capital punishment.

About 12 current reports indicate each time a convicted murderer is executed, between 3-18 homicides do not occur.

Some research indicates that capital punishment deters more murders in states that frequently and relatively utilize the death penalty such as Texas.

Law professors and other scholars have criticized this research, arguing that the hypothesizes developed by economists is not relevant to research pertaining to criminals. Specifically, those skeptical of this research claim economists' conclusions are centered on faulty claims, inadequate data, and poor research methods.

In 2005, Justin Wolfers, an economics professor teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, and John J. Donohue III, a legal scholar with a PhD in economics teaching at Yale, in an article published in the Stanford Law Review, stated, capital punishment 'is applied so rarely that the number of homicides it can plausibly have caused or deterred cannot reliably be disentangled from the large year-to-year changes in the homicide rate caused by other factors.' They further stated, 'The existing evidence for deterrence,' with their final analysis, 'is surprisingly fragile.'

This current discussion between scholars, which began 2 years ago, is very reminiscent of disproven studies conducted during the 70's. This research was used in legal arguments presented before the Supreme Court in 1976 when the Court lifted capital punishments restrictions after a 4 year halt to executions. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, writing the Court's majority opinion, stated the research presented to the Court was not complete. However, he stated, 'the death penalty undoubtedly is a significant deterrent.'

The Supreme Court currently seems to have halted executions until it determines whether lethal injection violates the Constitution. The next Supreme Court ruling, which will probably be issued next year, will likely not be affected by current research and be less open to interpretation than the 1976 decision. However, current research is beginning to change the debate about the death penalty and is affecting the opinions of famous legal professors.