November 27, 2007

The Death Penalty

I was walking past the TV in the living room a few months ago and the local news was broadcasting a segment about a woman who had been knifed repeatedly in her apartment by a robber early Sunday morning who had been seen checking for unlocked doors. As the broadcast went on, introducing more details about the nameless victim, I started to feel a horrible sensation of inevitability: she was somebody I knew. Finally, when the reporter mentioned she had been a Peace Corps volunteer, I went and found my wife to tell her that her friend X had been attacked, but was in stable condition in the hospital.

Just two weeks later, the victim was back at work, speaking through a voice amplifier because she had been stabbed seven times in the neck and face. She told my wife that while doing paperwork on her bed on Saturday night, she had fallen asleep and failed to lock her door. The robber had walked in at dawn and woken her up. When she said, "Take my laptop," he replied, "But you've seen my face" and started stabbing her. Her resistance and screaming brought neighbors out of their apartments, so the would-be killer made a run for it, taking her computer, cell phone, and credit card.

He wasn't exactly a criminal mastermind. He called all his fellow members in his Latino street gang on her cell phone, and used her credit card at his local Jack-in-the-Box. When the cops came to call on his gang friends that he had dialed, they rolled over on him and said he always went to Jack's for breakfast, where the police nabbed him the next day.

The death penalty is debated frequently, but seldom do you hear the best justification for it -- as a way to prevent witness-killing, as this bastard attempted. This guy is an idiot, but he was still logical enough to understand what so many pundits fail to grasp -- that in this era of long prison terms for crimes like robbery (which have successfully lowered the crime rate), murdering a witness can be rational unless there's the deterrent of the death penalty. California has a "three strikes" law mandating life imprisonment for a third felony, so without a death penalty, it makes perfect sense for a two time loser to kill witnesses to what would be his third strike.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

California has a "three strikes" law mandating life imprisonment for a third felony, so without a death penalty, it makes perfect sense for a two time loser to kill witnesses to what would be his third strike.

It seems like this could be an argument against the three strikes law as easily as it could be an argument for the death penalty.

Anonymous said...

It is an argument for a serious difference between punishments for different crimes.

A lack of death penalty means that all punishments get compressed - if multiple murderers get 25 years, single muderes cannot get more than 15, mitigating circumstances make it 15 & cutting a deal makes it 8 & it all cascades down. So I come back to supporting the death penalty that way.

However the real argument for a death penalty is that it discourages those who haven't done it yet. Game theory suggests that "an eye for an eye" has much merit.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, the witness killing is also used as an argument why for example the punishment for rape and even for pedophilic acts shouldn't be too high. The best way for a criminal to get away with these kinds of sex crimes is still to murder the victim

Bruce Charlton said...

The death penalty almost certainly does deter murder. What convinced me were the statistical analyses by 'Engram' on the incomparable Back Talk blog.

These analyses are collected under the title Prior Posts on Capital Punishment.

This is a must read:

Anonymous said...

Steve, that is terrible news. I am so sorry.

Christ, I feel like I know you.

I hope she is able to heal on all levels.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but our hypothetical criminal is on strike number 3 already. He's not going to stop. So, say we get rid of the three strikes law. We avoid a witness murder, but end up with this guy on and off the streets for the next 20 years.

I would like to see corporal punishment brough back for some crimes. I think twenty lashes administered in public would be as big of a disincentive for smaller crimes as 2-5 years would be.

Anonymous said...


You need to encourage your friend to turn her experiences into a TV Drama or something that brings out the nuance that criminals (and illegals) will do anything, including murder, to escape deportation and jail.

Surely the public will lap up her story. Some poor woman violently assaulted for having seen the dude's face.

Of course, she was stupid for not remembering to lock the door behind her as she entered the appartment.

Anonymous said...

A life sentence in this case actually means possibility of parole after 20 years, which in my opinion is not excessive for a home invasion robbery with a knife on a third strike.

DissidentMan said...

I think the argument works both ways. When the penalty for murder is automatically death, a murderer has an increased incentive to kill all possible witnesses as well as hit originally intended victim. As a Buddhist I am necessarily against the death penalty but I still think that the law should be applied evenly. Letting criminals that flunk an IQ test get jail, while smarter ones get death is strikes me as wrong,

Dutch Boy said...

The three strikes law is actually too lenient. Psychological studies have shown that dangerous criminals manifest themselves early in life. It would make a lot more sense to jail a violent criminal for twenty years at age 18 than to allow him to commit at least three serious crimes and then put him away for life. It would also lead to a lot fewer 65 year-olds clogging up California prisons.

Anonymous said...

If a two-time loser is committing a crime under California jurisdiction, he has two choices:

(1) Kill the witness, and escape punishment.
(2) Allow the witness to live, and face life in prison.

Under the DP, the chocies are basically the same. The advantage that you get with the DP is in a scenario where the suspect feels that he may be caught, or otherwise feels some sort of remorse. Then, the incentive of life-in-prison over DP might motivate him to let the witness live (but honestly, do ordinary criminals really think this far in advance?)

Anonymous said...

This makes sense until the first capital offense is committed, after which the existence of the death penalty might actually provide a stronger incentive for criminals to murder remaining witnesses/bystanders/potential informants to avoid being apprehended and thus executed. What's left to lose?

Anonymous said...

How many felonies should we spot people anonymous? Four, eight, a bakers dozen perhaps? Like most sane, non-left folks, I'm wondering why we are giving criminals three shots at robbing, raping and maiming people before we put them away for good.

Anonymous said...

Look at the guy who killed Kelsey Grammer's sister by cutting her throat. He was up for parole recently! The problem is that even though the death penalty exists, it doesn't get used nearly enough. Criminal scum just sit in jail for appeal after appeal. Start throwing the switch and put the fear of death into these animals. It is all they will ever understand.
I also like the idea of corporal punishment. It works in Singapore. We should bring back the stocks as well.

Anonymous said...

Anon -- because felons vote Democratic.

Also, they keep the "little people" down so only rich people have security.

Anonymous said...


Yikes! You and she are in my prayers. What an awful story!

Anon 1:15:

The issue that usually gets raised is that the three strikes laws sometimes lead to unreasonably harsh/expensive punishments, like putting some moderate loser who's not much danger to anyone in prison for life, after his third time arrested for property damage during a bout of drunken idiocy. Also, if drug possession is one of the crimes, I can see how you might end up locking someone up for life when they're not much threat to anyone but themselves.

The hard part of this is that if someone is convicted for crimes on three separate occasions (not three charges for the same event), he probably has been doing a lot of stuff without getting caught. So if we catch you breaking into three houses, the chances are good that you've really broken into dozens of houses, costing millions of dollars in repairs, insurance replacements, alarm systems, and police resources.

I've never understood why a someone with a conviction for premeditated murder or rape (whether the victim is an adult or a child) would ever be let out.

Anonymous said...

Death penalty?! That's old-timey WASP stuff, man. Sailer, you are the opposite of progressive and that's not a compliment.

Anonymous said...

Death penalty?! That's old-timey WASP stuff, man. Sailer, you are the opposite of progressive and that's not a compliment.

Our New Overlords-the Chinese-are by far the world leader in the execution department. It's the wave of the future, get used to it.

Anonymous said...

The Washington State three strikes law mandates an additional 10 years without parole for a third felony. Not making any suggestions here -- just putting the info out there because few people seem to know about that one.

DissidentMan said...

Just an addendum to my previous post. I'm fairly conservative on most issues, especially when it comes to race and sex issues in which case my opinions are presently considered socially unacceptable, but on the issue of crime and punishment some would say I'm on the left. Like I said, I am a Buddhist and I consider it a reasonable religious view. ALthough I have not had experiences which I would consider personal proof of the esoteric claims of Buddhism, I maintain (similar to Pascal's Wager), that by practicing Buddhism, that I haven't got much to lose if the esoteric cosmological claims of Buddhism are actually false. This should partly explain why I disfavour vicious punishments, especially those involving death. On a more anecdotal note, I was in an MRI machine today, which isn't that discomfitting but it's still a bit like being trapped in a coffin. Whenever I'm seriously reminded of death I have thoughts of compassion and it occurs to me that I would not wish death on anyone.

All of this personal stuff aside, I also think that for conservatives to champion issues like the death penalty, fox hunting etc, could be a serious political blunder, and I think that some of the championning of these issues is just conservatives compensating for the fact that so many much more serioua causes are now essentially anathematised by the church of PC.

Back to the personal today I was reading an article (by Conrad Black's neocon wife Barbara Amiel) Good luck if you've got nasty underclass tastes: The class problems in outlawing dogfighting wherein she sagely asks us the following question:
The selective prosecution of Vick aside, the further question remains: does any government have the right to legislate against entertainment simply because some people find it cruel and repellent?
Yes of course, How completely unenlightened it is that people would wish to see laws based upon mores! We all know that laws should instead be based upon libertarian axioms, and that these axioms should always be interpretable as favouring both support for Israel, and support for wars for Israel's sole benefit. Her neocon husband Conrad (now on his way to jail), got a British peerage only to show up once in the House of Lords only once, in order to vote for involvement in the Iraq war.

Anonymous said...


The awful thing about Vick's case is that the consequences would have been far, far less, had he simply, say, beat the hell out of his wife a few times. Or beaten the hell out of some random strangers. That sort of thing is forgiven football stars all the time, if nobody ends up dead.

But mistreat dogs, and you've had it. The dogfighting is nasty, but treating it as more important than hurting people is nuts.

Anonymous said...

The death penalty is debated frequently, but seldom do you hear the best justification for it -- as a way to prevent witness-killing, as this bastard attempted.

The death penalty seems it would be most useful as a bargaining chip (of course to use it as such, you would actually have to have the occasional execution).

Since so many cases are settled without a trial, the prosecutor needs something to give in order to get a guilty plea. If capitol punishment is on the table he can offer life instead of death. If off the table the only thing he can offer is less than life - or else take the expense and risk of a full blown trial. There are trade-offs, but you probably get more life imprisonment for murderers when capital punishment is an option.

That's a study you could do state-by-state. Which states have higher rates of murderers in prison for life - those with or without the death penalty?

Another argument against the death penalty is that it's too expensive, with the way the appeals process drags on. But I suspect that states with it get their money back with interest when more murderers cop a plea and avoid trial altogether.