Deadly lies

George W. Bush and Al Gore both believe capital punishment deters violent crime. They're wrong.

By Bruce Shapiro

Published October 20, 2000 6:27PM (EDT)

Steve Allen used to play a game with his kids called Find the Lie: He'd hand them a newspaper story and tell them to get busy. Today's question: Can you Find the Lie in the final presidential debate? Was it George W. Bush's specious claim that Al Gore's budget will bust taxpayers' wallets? Gore's flamboyant evasion of a question about parental responsibility in schools?

No, the whopper Tuesday night was entirely bipartisan. It came when audience member Leo Anderson pointed out how, in the previous week's debate, Bush seemed to "overly enjoy" invoking the death penalty. "Are you really, really proud of the fact that Texas is No. 1 in executions?"

Well, no, replied the Texas governor. "If you think I was proud of it, I think you misread me." But then he added: "I think the reason to support the death penalty is because it saves other people's lives." Gore, not one to be outdone in the law-and-order department, chimed in with the same assertion: "It's a deterrence."

It's no news that both Gore and Bush support the death penalty; capital punishment was Republican currency for years until Clinton and Gore claimed it as their own. But that little exchange reveals much about both candidates' carelessness with facts when it suits their politics.

In fact, whatever the rationales for capital punishment, deterring crime isn't among them -- a fact well known to the nation's top law-enforcement officials. Attorney General Janet Reno, a death-penalty supporter whose Justice Department has helped pass laws making it far harder for death-row inmates to appeal their sentences, put it this way a few months ago: "I have inquired for most of my adult life about studies that might show the death penalty is a deterrent. And I have not seen any research that would substantiate that point."

Scholars of crime agree with her. The academic journal Crime and Delinquency last year examined more than a decade of executions in George W. Bush's Texas, and found "no evidence of a deterrent effect." Other research has reached the same conclusion, most notably a 1997 study of crime in over 500 counties nationwide. Cops agree with Reno too: A 1995 poll by Hart Research Associates found that just 1 percent of police chiefs believe the death penalty significantly reduces the number of homicides. Even one of the country's most conservative, pro-death-penalty judges, Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, has acknowledged that little evidence backs up the deterrence argument.

The cops know the death penalty doesn't deter crime, the attorney general knows it, the scholars know it -- but not Bush and Gore. Indeed, their persistence in playing the death penalty card in the last two debates reveals much about each candidate.

For Bush, his aggressive promotion of execution reveals a habit of factual distortion at least as damning as the lies for which his rival has been soundly condemned. Last night, for instance, Bush declared his capital-punishment apparatus part of a successful crime-fighting machine: "I'm proud of the fact that violent crime is down in the state of Texas. I'm proud of the fact that we hold people accountable."

That successful crime-fighting strategy, unfortunately, is a figment of the governor's imagination. According to figures in the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports released just this week, while crime is declining in cities nationwide, it is up in the large cities of Texas. (A fact initially reported only by the enterprising criminal-justice Web site The only other state to defy the national crime drop is Florida, governed by Bush's brother and the only state to rival Texas in the pace of executions. New York, which has not executed anyone in decades, leads the nation's most populous states in driving crime downward. The FBI's figures confirm a study earlier this fall by the Justice Police Institute, which found crime falling more slowly in Bush's Texas than in any comparable state.

On Tuesday, Bush also repeated his refrain about the fairness of Texas justice: "My job is to ask two questions, sir: Is the person guilty of the crime, and did the person have full access to the courts of law? And I can tell you, looking at you right now, in all cases those answers were affirmative."

Affirmative? Just this week, the Texas criminal lawyers' association Texas Defenders released an exhaustive, 156-page study concluding, in the words of the group's executive director, "Nobody can have confidence we are sorting out the guilty from the innocent." As the Texas Defenders study points out, Texas prosecutors have won dozens of death sentences on the basis of jailhouse testimony alone, a notoriously unreliable source of evidence. In Texas, court-appointed defense lawyers have slept through death-row trials, prosecutors have given contradictory accounts of the same murder to two different death-row juries, and other sentences have been won with testimony from psychiatrist Walter Quijano, who told jurors defendants might be more dangerous because of their race.

Yet if capital punishment reveals George W. Bush at his most manipulative and deceptive, it is also the terrain on which Bush has most deftly drawn his rival into a corner where Gore has no defense.

As a New Democrat, Gore has spent the past decade working to draw his own party further to the right on crime and punishment. Yet now Gore faces a Republican who has presided over a capital-punishment express without rival in American history -- making the vice president, who has never signed a death warrant, look like a piker.

Gore learned this the hard way in the Oct. 9 debate, when he was prattling on about hate crimes laws. Bush instantly trumped Gore by saying, "It's going to be hard to punish them any worse after they get put to death."

Some viewers were aghast at this chilly glee, among them Anderson, Bush's death-penalty interrogator Tuesday night. But it was also a moment of perverse political poetry: In a flash Bush neutralized not only Gore's hate-crimes rhetoric but any future attack from the vice president on Texas' death-row express. By snake-canning "hate crimes laws" and "death penalty" into the same sentence, Bush irrefutably exposed Gore as the Great Equivocator, showing him pandering to liberals and law-and-order types at the same time.

The irony of Gore's powerlessness to confront Bush on this issue is that the electorate itself is growing weary of the pace of execution, and wary of death-row innocence cases, according to every recent poll on the question. A different candidate could make campaign fodder of the public's unease, especially given Bush's enthusiasm for the death penalty. But Gore, afraid to back away from his death-penalty embrace, on Tuesday was reduced to sputtering evasion and generalities: "There has to be alertness, to, to say, hey, wait a minute, have we got the wrong guy?"

Scarcely one of the great rhetorical moments in presidential-debate history. When it comes to capital punishment, Gore is caught on a hook of his own design -- while Bush looks on with the most profound satisfaction.

Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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Al Gore George W. Bush Texas