Deterring Killers?

Dennis Rader, the sociopathic psycho-killer known as BTK (Bind-Torture-Kill), has plead guilty and confessed in a matter of fact manner to the brutal murders of 10 victims, explaining in open court how he stalked, constrained, and murdered them. Carrying his “hit kit” he entertained sexual fantasies while “putting them down” like animals.

BTK would make a fine poster child for anti-death-penalty activists who would want everything possible to be done to save this fine specimen of human life from the punishment that justice demands for his heinous crimes against society and humanity.

However, they do not have to fight that fight because BTK performed all of his murders (which are known) before 1994, when Kansas reinstated the death penalty. His last murder was in 1991. This raises the question of whether the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1994 deterred Rader from killing again. There had been other gaps of time in BTK’s killing spree as long the span between 1991 and 1994. Isn’t it likely that BTK would have killed again but for the reinstatement of the death penalty?

23 Responses to Deterring Killers?

  1. Anonymous says:

    This seems like slightly weak evidence, one way or the other. Rader may have simply grown out of his killing phase, or he might have found other ways of expressing his deviant sexuality. The assumption that he stopped killing (or, more exactly, didn’t start killing again after his three-year hiatus) because of the change in judicial penalties is problematic. This may have been the reason–but anything else might have happened to Rader at that point.

    Aside from the debate over deterrence (which can really only happen at a statistical level, because of the multivariate causation involved in criminal decision-making), there’s a moral debate. Your presentation of the anti-death-penalty position is that it consists of admiring killers. This is, of course, a straw man.

    I have two moral reasons for opposing the death penalty. The first is the horror of error; if society as a whole sometimes, by accident, kills innocent people, then we’re collectively murderers, too.

    The second is that I don’t think criminal justice, which is really the same thing as vengence, is really ours by right. I think we have a responsibility to design policies that balance commitments to public safety with the rights of the accused and of criminals, and with other budgetary priorities. But this is policy, with pragmatic goals about walking the streets safely. The moral question of vengence seems inappropriate to me. When we decide to kill in vengence those who’ve killed us, it feels to me as if we descend to the moral ground of the killers. 

    Posted by RoastedTomatoes

  2. Anonymous says:

    I don’t see how your concerns apply to someone for whom there is no doubt of his guilt. The horror of error could not be a consideration in this case. Additionally, this isn’t a question of vengeance, necessarily, it is a question of justice. Is justice really served if Rader is put in a cell with three square meals a day for the rest of his life, on the dime of the taxpayers of Kansas? Yes, yes, I know that executing a prisoner actually costs more than life in prison because of the mandatory appeals that our law calls for. Thus, the pragmatic view would eshew the death penalty already because life in prison is cheaper. But the costs of mandatory appeals are an artificial cost that forces the pragmatic route to be life in prison. Again, these don’t really apply, or shouldn’t, in a case where the murderer admits guilt and confesses the crimes in callous detail.

    It sounds morally high and mighty to be “above” killing the killer. But does that really give effect to true justice? In our age of moral relativism and decentralization, we can never know. 

    Posted by john fowles

  3. Anonymous says:

    Besides, the point of this post was to ponder deterrence and had nothing to do with vengeance. Your focus on “vengeance” as an animus for people who support the death penalty where it is deserved and can be carried out without error is just as much a straw man as my characterizing death penalty activists and murderer-lovers.

    You made a good point about the speculative nature of the question of whether Rader might have been deterred from his bloodlust by a fear of his own execution should he be caught once the death penalty was reinstated. I fully agree it is pure speculation. But deterrence remains a consideration for many who support the death penalty. If the existence of the death penalty deterred Rader from binding, torturing, and killing even one more woman, then it would seem that the death penalty is worth it, doesn’t it? 

    Posted by john fowles

  4. Anonymous says:

    Err, that should “anti-death-penalty activists” not death penalty activists. 

    Posted by john fowles

  5. Anonymous says:

    For me, execution or other punishment of criminals is more a matter of repudiation than vengeance. As for “if even one” arguments, my default position on those is rejection. First, each life doesn’t have infinite value. I wouldn’t spend a $100 billion and suspend all civil liberties to spare one life or even a thousand. Second, that “one life” in such arguments is usually ill-defined and may well not exist. Arguments over tradeoffs for 1.5 or 0.8 lives would get more of my attention. 

    Posted by John Mansfield

  6. Anonymous says:

    Roasted Tomatoes:

    Are “horror of error” and “no right to vengeance” the most compelling reasons you have for opposing the death penalty?

    “Horror of error” sounds pretty vague and it appears problematic in this context, since there has been no documented case of a factually innocent person actually being executed (show me one if you disagree). And Wouldn’t “horror of error” cut both ways? What about the horror of error of not employing the death penalty to deter future murders?

    Also, which public policy choices require us to employ the “horror of error” consideration and when would it keep us from enacting a policy? For example, what about the “horror of error” of locking someone up for life, or the horror of error of posting a 90 mph speed limit instead of 65 when it is known that a certain number of additional highway deaths will occur per year?

    As far as vengeance, there are strong non-vengeance based reasons supporting the death penalty (besides justice and proportionality). I have already alluded to deterrance, which can be subdivided into specific deterrance (ie deterring that particular killer from killing again) and general deterrence, which occurs when the generally known seriousness of the crime and its consequences deters a run-of-the-mill member of society from committing a crime that he would otherwise commit were the detterance not in place.

    I would be curious to know how you justify non-death penalty criminal punishments. Would you say that imprisoning a kidnapper who literally kept his victims imprisoned would sink us to the low moral ground of the kidnapper?  

    Posted by pete

  7. Anonymous says:

    By the way, for anyone interested, there is a great book of pro and con essays regarding the death penalty in “Debating the Death Penalty” Bedau and Cassell, Eds. (Oxford 2004)

    Judge Cassell, particularly, makes a compelling case for the death penalty, and it is from him that I picked up the notion that there are no documented cases of factually innocent people being executed. I really am open to correction on this one. I would like to see the case. 

    Posted by pete

  8. Anonymous says:

    Do we know where BTK was during these periods of inactivity? Was he incarcerated for other crimes? It seems to me that someone that depraved would have a hard time constraining himself even for the consequence of the death penalty. 

    Posted by kristen j

  9. Anonymous says:

    Kristen, he was not incarcerated at all for other crimes. He was a compliance officer for stray animals and other local ordinances and also served as the President of his local Lutheran congregation. For all we know, the only significant thing that changed between 1991 and today was that Kansas reinstated the death penalty in 1994 (this is of course pure speculation since we don’t know why BTK apparently stopped killing after the murder he committed in 1991). 

    Posted by john fowles

  10. Anonymous says:

    Regarding the matter of no documented cases of innocents, may I point out that there isn’t an incentive for the courts, prosecutors etc to document innocence claims.

    Also, there have been people who were freed from convictions based on DNA evidence, who were otherwise slated for the death penalty. Had such a technological innovation not come about today. Before we proclaim our certainty I would invite you to read roger coleman;s story in “May God Have Mercy”. It gives a narrative view of the criminal justice process and exposes the week points on one man’s conviction.

    As far as the Horror of errors goes, I think the taking of a life demands a much higher degree of accuracy than does life imprisonment. Pete’s application of relativism errors simply doesn’t apply. There is a tradeoff in everything. Sure some innocent people have been wrongly incarcerated, and that is a bad thing. But we can try and make that right. We can free them, provide job training, try and get them back on their feet. The cost of error is a lot lower. And we have to draw the line somewhere.

    As far as “justice demanding”, I don’t buy that argument. Killing the killer doesn’t bring the victim back. Keeping them in prison prevents any future crimes. I personally base my moral value on the value of human life. If there is a viable alternative to the taking of a human life, it is wrong to take that life. Thus, abortion is wrong, but I would allow it if the life of the mother is at risk. The death penalty is wrong, because life imprisonment is a viable alternative.

    Getting back to the point of the post, I researched this a few years back, and it seemed that the weight of the evidence was that the death penalty was NOT a detterent. That is to say statistics showed no significant difference between before and after rates of murder.

    I would also guess that most killings are done in the heat of passion, and thus the death penalty would not be a detterent. For Rader it might have been. The problem is that it seems the death penalty would be a logical detterent. But for me, It would never be logical to kill, except in self defense. So I don’t think I would ever get to that “fence”. For someone who is so twisted, like Rader, I think it would be hard to evaluate the prohibitive effect of the DP>  

    Posted by Jay S

  11. Anonymous says:

    Jay S:

    I am still waiting to hear about a factually innocent “victim” of the death penalty. While the government may not have an incentive to document such cases, hard core death penalty opponents surely do. But it just isn’t happening.

    I do want to read “May God Have Mercy” but my understanding is that even in that case there was plenty of reason to find the accused guilty.

    Posted by Pete

  12. Anonymous says:

    Pete, death penalty opponents place their resources in trying to help people about to be executed, not in questions relating to those already executed (see the Innocence Project, which produces a lot of the DNA evidence Jay S. discusses).

    In general, the “horror of error” argument wasn’t intended to apply to the BTK case–it was a statement of one of my two general objections to the death penalty. I think this criterion doesn’t apply to situations in which the state isn’t affirmatively killing people. Hence, all of the other policy examples, in which actions of the state indirectly lead to deaths, are excluded.

    John, I can see no difference between a demand that we do justice to someone, in the sense you’re demanding of doing something to them as serious as what they’ve done to others, and a demand for vengence on that person. I think that kind of justice/vengence isn’t our job–it’s God’s.

    The statistical evidence that the death penalty as practiced in the USA deters crime in any way that life in prison wouldn’t is weak at best. Anyone who tells you there is a definitive answer to this–rather than a heated and inconclusive debate–is misleading you. Different (and equally defensible) statistical models lead to contradictory results. So we just can’t base policy decisions on the hope of deterrence; no conclusive evidence exists. 

    Posted by RoastedTomatoes

  13. Anonymous says:

    How convenient to say that the only reason no documented case of a factually innocent person being executed has been presented is because resources are being put elsewhere. Let’s be honest, presenting such a case would go a very long way toward getting rid of the death penalty. (It would certainly bolster your horror of error argument.) Activists have every incentive in the world to find such a case and present it, yet they haven’t because they’ve been too busy?. Please.

    Why should the “horror of error” consideration only apply when the state is “affirmatively killing” someone, and what does that phrase mean, anyway? To go back to my highway example, is it “affirmative killing” to enact a policy knowing that it will increase deaths? We do that all the time. In fact, because we have failed to give more aid to Africa and every other country a certain number of people have died as a result, AND WE KNOW THIS. How and why do you try to distinguish between these kinds of public policies and the death penalty? Are you categorically against war?

    As far as your deterrance arguments, I agree there are some evidentiary difficulties with proving the effectiveness of general deterrance. On the other hand, it is easy to prove that executed criminals have been specifically deterred from killing again. And there are a host of cases where convicted murderers have brutally killed others while serving life sentences.

    Posted by pete

  14. Anonymous says:

    How many murders are committed by people who have already committed murder before? The thought that capital punishment is not a deterrent is ludicrous on the face of it because it presupposes that no murderer that is allowed to live will ever kill again. Capital punishment is obviously a one hundred percent certain deterrent against a murderer committing further murders.

    Even if we could be certain that a murderer sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole will never escape, do not such men sometimes kill again within the prison environment? Don’t they kill fellow inmates? Don’t they kill guards? Just who do we suppose run the prison gangs if not the murderers?

    On thing is certain, murderers who are put to death never kill again. They don’t escape from prison. They don’t kill fellow inmates and guards. Not ever.  

    Posted by John W. Redelfs

  15. Anonymous says:

    John and Pete,

    High-security prison environments can also minimize the probability of repeat offenses by murderers.

    The “eliminate-the-killer” part of this really isn’t what people mean when they discuss deterrence, in any case.

    For the most part, as far as I know, prisoners on death row are kept isolated from other prisoners. This means that the prison gangs can’t really be run by these folks, anyway. The reporting on prison gangs that I’ve read suggests that they’re actually led, for the most part, by drug dealers. These people may also be murderers, but they’re usually in prison for drug- or gun-related offenses, not for murder.

    By the way, there’s another kind of “death penalty” for which there is a substantial statistical debate about a crime-preventing effect: abortion. See discussion at this economist’s website  and google “abortion crime” to find arguments on the other side. 

    Posted by RoastedTomatoes

  16. Anonymous says:

    Is there any reason at all to believe that the state’s enforcement of justice is what God was talking about when he said ‘vengeance’ was his? If that’s true, how is *any* punishment justifiable?

    The answer has to be, as the infelicitously-monikered ‘Roasted Tomatoes’ suggested a few comments back, that the state can punish people only to protect people. State action is justified by its consequences, in other words. Consequentialism. So the only person in this debate whose beliefs should lead them to support abortion, if it leads to a reduction in crime, is ‘Roasted Tomatoes.’ The rest of us, who believe in justice and punishment, have no reason to favor abortion just because of its effects.

    Turning to another argument: ‘Roasted Tomatoes’ suggests that there is a difference between society accidentally causing someone’s death and society deliberately causing someone’s death, and that’s why he doesn’t mind the fact that numerous government policies probably cause the death of someone or other as a side effect. This is muddy thinking. There is a difference between the society accidentally killing someone and society deliberately killing a murderer. The first is far worst. I’m far more worried about a postal truck hitting a bystander than I am by the thought that BTK might get fried. There is, however, no difference between society accidentally killing someone and society accidentally killing an innocent person we believe to be guilty. In both cases, the death of an innocent is accidental and unintended. 

    Posted by Adam Greenwood

  17. Anonymous says:

    The death penalty is essentially, I believe, at core a theological question. Many, including myself, believe that the death penalty is required because it is actually merciful in the long-term scheme of things in terms of the killer’s spiritual welfare. In other words, it is the only means by which restitution can be made. Having cut short the mortal probation of another, the only sacrifice that can be made is that the killer’s life also be cut short. This leaves the killer in a better position in the afterlife. I understand that this solution is not politically correct, but that is mostly because we have abandoned our moral moorings in America and left the Judeo-Christian tradition that originally provided the underlying concord for the moral judgments our laws make.

    Further, serial killers are very rational beings. The cold-blooded killers are very rational beings who respond with calculated precision to outside stimuli. If you don’t believe that, you haven’t looked at the calculus they perform before and after committing these crimes. The death penalty must also be seen, on a secular level, as deterrence of these criminals. Performing a cost/benefit analysis reveals that killers weigh the logical risk of meeting death themselves and choose not to kill, outweighing by a tremendous disproportion any person supposedly killed in error.

    I do not deny that innocents may be killed at times by the death penalty. I just think that is outweighed by the number of lives saved by having that policy in place.

    Further, my reading of the scriptures finds total sanction for the death penalty. Those with problems with the death penalty can often be found in the same camp with those who despise America, not because they compare America to anything else in the real world, but because they compare America to some kind of fleeting, visionary Utopia that has never existed on earth (short of the City of Enoch). As a result, they can never get past its flaws and see it for the beacon of hope it is in this messy little world down here of tin-pot dictatorships and false priests who oppress and tyrants who destroy.  

    Posted by Daniel

  18. Anonymous says:

    When it comes to deterring criminals from repeat offenses, the death penalty is a sure thing. Maximum security prison is not. California has the leader of a gang locked up right now who has created such a network of people inside and outside the prison, that he has directed murders on the outside. People leaving the prison have been caught (but some slip by) with lists of names in their body cavities. Until the gang leader is actually dead, he is capable of more violence outside of the prison.  

    Posted by Ken

  19. Anonymous says:

    Further, my reading of the scriptures finds total sanction for the death penalty. 

    So does mine. The problem is, America is not yet a theocracy with a perfect judicial system.

    And I highly resent being told that I am in the same camp with those who despise America just because I have problems with the death penalty. I can certainly see past the little flaws of America, and my resolve to vote against the death penalty should the issue come up in an election is no indication to the contrary, despite your wild assertion. I love being an American, and am proud to be an American.

    Daniel, you have crossed the line of civil discourse around here by your hateful statements towards those who oppose the death penalty as currently applied. Remember that you are unjustly condemning many of your fellow Americans, and many of your fellow priesthood holders (assuming you are LDS) with your unwarranted and unjustifiable assertion that anyone who is against the death penalty must hate America. Shame on you. Please peddle your hateful filth elsewhere. 

    Posted by Jordan

  20. Daniel-

    I must admit that I am very surprised at your wild statements about those who are opposed to the death penalty being somehow against America. The times I have met you, you always seemed more even-keeled and fair-minded than that. I guess I was wrong.

    I might add that you are not only unjustly condemning as America-haters your fellow countrymen and priesthood brethren, but also a fellow federalist and republican.

    But I guess that in your mind, a difference of opinion on this one issue is enough to classify you as a class 1 patriot and me as a hater of America.

    Again, please take it somewhere else.

  21. Anonymous says:

    I know I need to stop harping on this, but I find Daniel’s comments not only offensive but super-annoying. His “you-must-hate-America” rhetoric is the exact same garbage I always heard from the liberals at the University of Michigan when they found out I voted for President Bush in two elections.

    Perhaps I should class Daniel with them, as he has classed me as an “America-hater” in the same way that many liberals class people who see things differently than they do as “America-haters.” Funny to see Daniel engaging in the same mindless name-calling tactics as the liberals he probably hates. 

    Posted by Jordan

  22. Anonymous says:

    I apologize if you took offense at my comment. I assure you that it was qualified if you will read more closely. “Those with problems with the death penalty can OFTEN be found in the same camp with those who despise America . . . .” (emphasis added).

    I was not trying to say that anyone who opposes the death penalty is an America-hater, so I apologize if gave you the impression that this was my meaning. I was merely trying to make the argument that if you compare the death penalty as practiced to some ideal where no one who is innocent is ever killed wrongly, then you will never be happy with the death penalty. however, if you see those wrongful deaths as a necessary cost to preserve other lives, your vision changes. In short, I was simply making the argument that the ideal should not prevent us from doing what is good and practical. We should not make the good an enemy of the best.

    I understand that you might not agree with my view, and I can respect that.

    Also, if I may, please note that the system under Moses with stoning and the system under the Nephites and Jaredites were not theocracies with perfect judicial systems. Nonetheless, righteous prophets condoned the death penalty in those systems. Perhaps I would even go further and say that the risk of not killing murderers for their own eternal benefit outweighs the risk of killing an innocent very rarely.

    I don’t hate liberals, Jordan. I count many of them among my friends (as any lawyer must). I seem to really have hit a raw nerve with you, so to the extent that I did, I apologize. Give me a little more credit than equating everyone who opposes the death penalty with America-haters. I think you are a great person, Jordan, and consistently find myself agreeing with your posts. As such, I cannot help but appreciate and respect your reasoned position on any issue.

    You seem to be really frustrated here, though, so I apologize for any offense you might have interpreted from my comments. I assure you they were not intended in that spirit. I suspect that maybe you are doing what I am often prone to do — reading into a person’s statement all of the associations from previous people who have made that statement. We can’t help but bring that baggage with us to any conversation, but please know that although others who’ve made points similar to mine might carry that baggage, as far as I can know myself, I don’t think I do.

    Again, sorry for any unintended offense.  

    Posted by Daniel

  23. Anonymous says:

    OK- thanks, Daniel. No offense taken now.

    I was overly frustrated. 

    Posted by Jordan

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