« Strong sentencing opinion noting disparities in federal child porn downloading cases | Main | Two intriguing sentencing stories show the impact of cable TV on federal justice »

January 28, 2009

Can we effectively test capital deterrence in Maryland and Virginia now?

Whether the death penalty deters murders is an important and always controversial topic.  I tend to assume we will never know for sure and/or that the answer varies based on array of non-legal factors that cannot be effectively measured or modified.  That all said, the recent death penalty news in the vicinity of the nation's capital has me wondering if a terrific capital deterrence case-study is being created.

Specifically, consider this Washington Post report on recent capital debate headlined, "Maryland & Virginia Go Separate Ways On Death Penalty":

In both states, moves are afoot to make big changes in death penalty law. As the states' stereotypes would have it, Virginia is considering expanding use of capital punishment, while Gov. Martin O'Malley is stepping out to press Maryland to end its use of the ultimate sentence.

The Virginia efforts are an annual affair, a move, mainly by Republicans, to widen use of the death penalty to cover accomplices in murder cases. The state's current "triggerman" law limits executions to those who actually commit the deed, rather than those who may have conspired with or helped the killer....

Across the Potomac ... O'Malley has moved sharply away from his earlier reticence about translating his personal opposition to the death penalty into state policy.

So, in the same region, we have one state making news by talking about expanding the death penalty and another state making news about eliminating the death penalty.  (Squeezed in between is DC, which does not have the death penalty, though its entirely urban landscape keeps it from being an effective comparison to the somewhat more comparable states of Maryland and Virginia.)

Someone who does serious social science research likely would tell me that a host of factors may (or many not) prevent Maryland and Virginia from being good modern subjects for analysis of the classic capital deterrence question.  But, until I hear otherwise, I do think I am going to be keeping an extra eye focused on the homicide rates in these two jurisdictions.

January 28, 2009 at 10:37 AM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Can we effectively test capital deterrence in Maryland and Virginia now?:


We already have some comparative data for these two jurisdictions, given that Virginia has been much more effective in actually enforcing the death penalty.

Comparing murder rates for 2004 relative to the moratorium period when no executions occurred in the U.S., Virginia had a 50% drop, considerably better than the 36% national average. Maryland had a 12% drop, much less than the average.

And before the usual suspects start making the usual straw-man-fallacy comments, no, I am not asserting the above facts as conclusive proof.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jan 28, 2009 2:49:32 PM


We also could readily compare the homicide rates along the Delaware River from Sussex to Burlington Counties on one side of the river and Pike to Delaware Counties on the other post-repeal in NJ. As you know there are two models for capital punishment in the US, the Virginia/Texas model & the Pennsylvania/California model. The first kills alot, the second consists of a limited number of execution with large numbers sentenced to death. While the comparison does little for testing the first model, it would effectively test the second.

And then there is the Texas / NM model that we may get to test in a few months.

Posted by: karl | Jan 28, 2009 6:51:09 PM

One interesting note is that Virginia, while the second-busiest state execution-wise over the last thirty years, doesn't actually sentence people to death very often any more. In fact, I think it's down to about one a year. That probably will limit the usefulness of any study.

Posted by: dm | Jan 28, 2009 11:35:37 PM

The most obvious limitation of any comparision between Maryland and Virginia will be the degree of urbanization - Maryland has a much more urbanized population than Virginia. What makes the big difference about that in the death penalty context of that is that many (probably the vast majority) of the death sentences in Virginia are actually from the rural areas (Southside Virginia along the Virginia/NC Border, southwestern Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley). One reason for that is that a lot of the rural county/city prosecutors always pursue the death penalty in cases where it is available is because part of the funding formula used by the General Assembly is the number of death penalty cases brought - thus, bringing a death penalty case to trial (even if it results in a LWOP sentence - it may even count if settled by plea bargain before hand) will get more funding. I also have a theory that the Commonwealth is more willing to take charges to trial in the smaller jurisdictions because often the CA's offices are often overstaffed and they have pretty low workloads mainly comprised of routine fare like "Driving While Suspended" or simple assaults (really, there are some counties where being an Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney is a really sweet job if you can stand the boredom). The larger, richer jurisdictions bring much fewer death penalty cases - since they have richer jurisdictions, their prosecutors are less dependent on state funding due to local matches (Arlington County, for example pays their Commonwealth's Attorneys at least $25,000 above the normal state rate). They also have many more cases.

I don't know what type of funding system Maryland uses - but they have much fewer poor, rural counties than Virginia. I think that with the notable exception of Harris County, Texas, no one disputes that urban jurisdictions are much less likely to use the death penalty than rural ones - for a variety of factors.

Both Maryland and Virginia are unique states. Maryland is classified as a Southern state by the Census bureau, but in actuality, its much closer to a state like Massachusetts or Connecticut demograpically. Virginia manages somehow to emcompass both some of the richest areas in the US as well as some of the poorest.

Actually, Virginia west of the Blue Ridge and West Virginia are pretty similar demographically and would be a much closer comparison of a similar death penalty and non-death penalty jurisdiction.

Posted by: Zack | Jan 29, 2009 10:39:58 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB