The passing of former New York Mayor Ed Koch (shown) on February 1 brings to mind one of the most controversial things he ever did as a Democrat in the heart of American liberalism. In 1985, the three-term (January 1, 1978 - December 31, 1989) mayor wrote an essay defending the death penalty. He even had the temerity to declare, "Life is indeed precious and I believe the death penalty helps to affirm that fact."
Though it outraged liberals and "progressives" among the nation's esteemed "intelligentsia," Koch's essay reflected the convictions of most Americans, then as now, as opinion polls have consistently shown a substantial majority in favor of the death penalty. Yet the issue has been hotly debated for decades, based on claims concerning the morality of a state-imposed sentence of death. In June 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court, in Furman v. Georgia, found the death penalty to be unconstitutional when sentences are handed down and executions are carried out in ways that are arbitrary or influenced by racial bias. The decision resulted in a de facto ban on executions nationwide, pending further word from the Court. They were resumed in 1976 under guidelines meant to provide greater consistency and eliminate racial discrimination in capital cases.
In broader terms, however, arguments have often centered on the issue of deterrence. Death penalty defenders have argued that the electric chair, the gas chamber, the hangman's noose, or lethal injection deterred people from killing others. Opponents argue the possibility of facing the death sentence has no deterrent effect on those who kill in crimes of passion or those who believe they won't get caught. One argument that defies refutation is that whomever else it may or may not deter, capital punishment surely deters the killer who has been caught, duly tried, and executed. That one will not kill again. Death penalty opponents argue, however, that we can achieve that goal just as well with sentences of life without parole.
Koch, writing at the time the electric chair was either still in use or within recent memory, cited the example of a man who boasted of being undeterred because the death penalty was not in force. "Consider the tragic death of Rosa Velez, who happened to be home when a man named Luis Vera burglarized her apartment in Brooklyn," Koch wrote. Vera admitted he shot and killed the woman. "She knew me, and I knew I wouldn't go to the chair," he later admitted.
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Photo of Ed Koch: AP Images