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April 18, 2007

How rare events skew perspectives

Eugene Volokh has a great post here about how the law ought to respond to the VT tragedy that picks up a theme I often stress in discussions of the death penalty.  Here is a snippet:

It turns out that yesterday, about 25 to 40 people were killed in alcohol-related homicides, not including those that died because of their own alcohol consumption.  Each year, between alcohol-related drunk driving deaths and alcohol-involved murders, about 10-15,000 Americans (not including the responsible drunk drivers themselves) die.  That translates into roughly 25 to 40 deaths per day (the range is wide because the source numbers are necessarily back of the envelope estimates), about the same number as the extra homicide deaths from yesterday's mass shootings.  If you counted people whose alcohol consumption killed themselves, the total would likely be far more.

Eugene's point is not to minimize the VT tragedy, but rather to spotlight that rare and sensational events often skew our ability to do sensible cost-benefit assessments of proposed legal reforms.  And those who work in the arena of sentencing reform understand this reality whenever a single child abduction or parolees crime prompts new (and often unwise) sentencing proposals nationwide.

One interesting variation on this theme relates to whether and how Supreme Court Justices can have their own perspectives skewed.  Specifically, as I listened to all the news today concerning the VT shooters mental problems, I wondered if the Supreme Court's consideration of the Panetti competent-to-be-executed case this afternoon might have a much different look and feel now.

April 18, 2007 at 12:39 PM | Permalink


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I found some gun death data for the US in 2001 16,869 suicides (324/week), 11,348 homicides (218/week), 802 accidental (15/week), 323 legal intervention (6/week) and 231 undetermined (4 per week). I have been told by someone in medical statistics that it is common to find elevated blood alcohol levels in suicide cases and in homicide victims. All you have to do is observe initial appearances before a magistrate to get all the data you need to show a relationship between over consumption of alcohol and violent behavior.

Posted by: John Neff | Apr 18, 2007 2:00:10 PM

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