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AND I QUOTE / What Political Books Are Saying

Legal Lynching: Racism, Injustice & the Death Penalty. By Jesse Jackson (Marlowe; $22.95, 224 pp.)

September 15, 1996|John Balzar

"Deterrence theory is predicated on the seemingly common-sense notion that the possibility of receiving the death penalty will deter would-be killers, whereas the possibility of receiving a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole will not. If murderers were rational people educated in the laws of the states in which they live, the theory might have some weight. . . . Most homicides, however, are unplanned, impulsive acts by one person against another person. . . . If a murderer were to sit down to calculate the odds of being punished for a premeditated act of violence, this is what he would have to consider. In the United States, the death penalty is handed down for only about 1 out of every 100 homicides. In capital cases, the rate is higher, but it is still only 6-15 per 100 offenses (depending on the state), and of those sentenced, only 6 per 100 are executed. With these odds, the threat of being killed by the planned victim or in a confrontation with police is a much more realistic threat than the distant and abstract possibility of execution."

****

Not as confrontational as its title, Jackson's book looks at the final punishment through the optics of history, demographics, public opinion, legal process (and lack thereof) and the Bible. Most chillingly, he inventories cases where a sentence of death was decreed for men later proved innocent. Although conventional wisdom holds that capital punishment is hugely popular, Jackson concludes that many of us actually are squeamish--and that the death penalty reflects nothing so much as loss of faith in our justice system.

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