Texas execution rekindles debate over death penalty's impact on crime

The execution of Texas prisoner Charlie Brooks Jr. by lethal injection this week raises anew basic questions about the death penalty in the United States.

The most widely debated question is whether it has a deterrent effect on crime. Thirty-seven states now have the death penalty and more than 1,100 people are now on death rows across the US, with another 200 being added each month. As many as three executions a week may occur beginning sometime in 1983, according to the Justice Department, as appeals for the condemnded are exhausted.

The death penalty is one of the least effective tools to deter crime in the US, says the author of the highly controversial studies indicating capital punishment has some deterrent effects on crime.

''A greater rate of apprehending and convicting criminals is far more effective in reducing murder,'' Isaac Ehrlich of the State University of New York in Buffalo says. ''Jobs and a more equal distribution of income are also important factors that affect the incidence of murder.''

Another frequent issue regarding the death penalty is whether it is fairly applied.

The Brooks execution represents a major departure from previous executions, at least in recent years, says Jack Boeger of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He says it is the first execution he is aware of that was carried out with an initial appeal by the condemned still unheard by a court of appeals.

A federal judge who had reviewed the case refused to grant a stay of execution but pointed to several issues in the the case that merited a hearing. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and the US Supreme Court (by a 6-to-3 vote) similarly refused to block the execution until the appeal could be fully heard.

Whether this represents a new ''get tough'' attitude on the part of the courts regarding the death penalty is not clear, says Mr. Boger, an attorney. The issues raised in the appeal may have been judged by the courts to not merit a full hearing.

Brooks and another man were convicted of murder in 1976. The other man was originally sentenced to death, too, but the sentence was later changed to 40 years imprisonment. The former district attorney who prosecuted Brooks requested a stay of execution, arguing that it was unfair to render disparate sentences.

Several earlier studies have pointed to a trend that finds the killers of whites (regardless of whether the killer was black or white) more often given the death penalty than the killers of blacks, says Boger.

Two years prior to the 1972 US Supreme Court decision that forced many states to rewrite their death penalty laws, blacks comprised about 54 percent of the death row population in the US. That had dropped to 40 percent in 1979 but has risen to 42 percent since then, Boger says.

The Brooks execution was the first by lethal injection in the US. The American Medical Association in 1980 ruled that doctors may not participate in such executions but may certify the death.

Scott Christianson, a criminal justice consultant in Albany, N.Y., who has studied this issue, says he finds it ''disturbing'' that executions ''wrapped in the cloaks of medicine'' may be used more frequently now.

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