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'Is Retribution Only for a Few?'

December 14, 1986

Re: Franklin Zimring's quibbles on the death penalty, a few facts need correcting.

Zimring argues that since there are 20,000 killings a year and only 20 executions, we must be arbitrary in who is executed and therefore nobody should be. Leaving aside the standard legal principle that the law punishes the fraction it catches and the ones who get away don't change that, his statistics are misleading.

The 20,000 killings include everything from slugging that joker in the bar a bit harder than you thought to carefully planned out torture killings. Only about a third qualify as Murder 1, about the only crime where the death penalty is applied. About 40% of the killings don't result in convictions. Also, about one-fourth of the population lives in states without the death penalty. Our candidates for the chair are down to about 3,000.

The use of the death penalty has been rising every year. Twenty is already well below the annual toll. Zimring posits a maximum of 200, but if we return to the standards of even the 1930s, our population increase would make the figure 300-400 executions a year.

We are down to a figure of no worse than 9-1 to impose a death sentence, not the 100 or 1,000 Zimring has in mind. Even Murder 1 covers a wide range of crimes, from the mercy killing of a dying spouse to something from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. All judicial sentencing involves some degree of arbitrariness, and the death penalty is not excessive on this point. Zimring suggests more evenhanded administration of long prison terms, a good idea of itself, but the very need to make the suggestion shows that equal or greater arbitrariness exists without the death penalty.

DAVID CARL ARGALL

La Puente

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