Despite a 1976 Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the death penalty, discussion of the issue...



Despite a 1976 Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the death penalty, discussion of the issue continues undiminished--and to particular effect here. Van den Haag, a conservative scholar of many parts, strongly advocates the death penalty as a deterrent and on grounds that one who takes the Life of another ""forfeits"" the right to live. Conrad, a broad-based criminologist, opposes the death penalty primarily because ""the state must teach that killing anyone deliberately, for whatever reason, is needless and wrong."" Conrad disputes the statistical evidence cited by van den Hang, from studies by Isaac Ehrlich, that the death penalty deters murders; van den Haag supports Ehrlich's work, criticizes the contradictory studies of Thorsten Sellin and others, and says that, in any event, commonsense dictates that the death penalty will exceed a life sentence as a deterrent. Conrad responds that criminals ""are not economists,"" making clear, rational calculations; and that, because the death penalty differs from any other type of punishment, the burden of proof is on its advocates. That burden, he says, they have not met. The constitutional question, though momentarily settled, is debated too. The framers of the Constitution, van den Haag argues, were aware of the death penalty and did not think it ""cruel and unusual punishment."" He therefore believes that the Court decided lightly. To Conrad, the question should be reopened to allow for a new interpretation of ""cruel and unusual punishment"" in light of ""evolving standards of decency."" Van den Haag is not troubled by the possibility of racial discrimination--which, he maintains, can be avoided in practice; independent studies, cited by Conrad, allow no doubt of the racial bias. Van den Haag is also undismayed at the possibility that innocent persons, may be executed: ""most human activities cause the death of some innocent bystanders."" He would correct the arbitrariness of the death penalty's application, it appears, by streamlining the process and limiting the right of convicted murderers to appeal. He would certainly prefer to have more people executed for murder than at present. Conrad suggests that, given 10,000 convicted murderers a year, van de Haag's thesis would require the execution of about 40 people per working day. Former Supreme Court Justice Goldberg, who introduces the volume, did not alter his opposition to the death penalty after reading its contents. As both van den Haag and Conrad would agree, whether to execute, zero, one, or 40 people per day is essentially a moral decision. But the debaters cover the major points at issue, in a clear-cut fashion--making this an excellent introduction to the arguments on both sides, for lay readers, activists, or lawyers.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1983


Page Count: -

Publisher: Plenum

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1983