Capital Punishment, Execution Publicity and Murder in Houston, Texas

Article excerpt

Punishment is not inflicted by a rational man for the sake of the crime that has been committed--after all one cannot undo what is past--but for the sake of the future, to prevent either the same man or, by the spectacle of his punishment, someone else, from doing wrong again.

--Plato, Protagoras


Healthy debate persists as to the deterrent effect of capital punishment. Although an expansive and diverse body of research has accumulated that examines the effect of executions or execution publicity on murder rates, this research affords few definitive conclusions. On one hand, there is evidence that executions reduce murder levels. Empirical work by Ehrlich, Phillips, and Stack supports this view. (1) On the other hand, several studies fail to discern convincing evidence of a relationship. (2) Still others find a positive association. (3) These inconsistencies in the literature raise methodological issues, some of which are grounded in theoretical arguments. Perhaps the most serious concern is specifying the true nature of the causal relationship between capital punishment and murder rates. Most previous studies estimated only unidirectional relationships. The question of salience, however, is whether recursive models portray the relations among the variables of interest accurately. Another issue relates to the geographical unit of analysis best suited for evincing deterrence effects. Whereas most prior studies relied on state or national level data to assess the deterrent effect of capital punishment, a high level of aggregation may not fully capture the ecological dynamics that are hypothesized to underlie deterrence theory.

We address these methodological concerns to help clarify the conflicting findings often reported in the literature. Using monthly data and a fully recursive vector ARMA statistical procedure, we examine the causal relations among execution risk, execution newspaper publicity, and incidents of murder in Houston, Texas from January 1990 to December 1994. We address three general questions. First, does the number of monthly executions decrease murder incidents? If people are rational actors who weigh the likely costs and benefits of their behavior before engaging in criminal activity as deterrence advocates suggest, an inverse relationship between execution risk and murder incidents is anticipated. Conversely, if the brutalization thesis has any merit, we expect to observe a positive relationship between execution risk and murder incidents. Second, does variation in murder incidents impact execution risk? It is plausible that high levels of murder drain the finite resources of the criminal justice system, thereby making the apprehension, prosecution, and execution of offenders less certain. It is also possible that high murder rates amplify public fear of crime, which in turn evokes a more punitive response on the part of prosecutors and judges in their handling of criminal cases. Third, if causality flows in both directions, what is the relative magnitude of the effects of execution risk on murder incidents and murder incidents on execution risk?

In addition to analyzing the relationship between execution risk and murder incidents, an effort is made to determine whether the newspaper publicity surrounding an execution affects the frequency of murder incidents. Because deterrence is a communicative theory, it seems logical to anticipate that such publicity influences murder rates. The identification of the nature and direction of the causal relations among execution risk, execution newspaper publicity, and murder incidents should help to enrich our understanding of deterrence theory.


The deterrent effect of capital punishment remains a topic of contentious debate. Advocates of the deterrence thesis maintain that the death penalty acts as an effective deterrent because individuals are free-will actors who rationally weigh the probable benefits and potential liabilities before engaging in criminal activities. …