Moratorium No Holiday for Homicides


by Dale O. Cloninger and Roberto Marchesini

While the Governor of Illinois has declared a moratorium on executions to study guilt and innocent issues of condemned murderers, reports circulate that the Governor of Nebraska and the President of the United States are considering similar moratoriums. Opponents of capital punishment are pushing for moratoriums as at least temporary reprieves for the death penalty. In light of these efforts, our current research suggests that the number of homicides rose as a result of a recent unofficial moratorium on executions in Texas.

On January 2, 1996 the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a stay of execution in Davis, ex parte (947 S.W.2d 216; 1996). The effect of this order was the delay of all but three executions in Texas during 1996. In the prior three years Texas executed an average of 17 death row inmates per year. The appeals court lifted its stay on December 18, 1996 and executions resumed on February 10, 1997. Practicing catch-up, Texas executed 37 inmates in the remaining months of 1997. Thus, in back-to-back years, the change in actual executions was twelve fold. This dramatic double reversal in the number of executions provides an opportunity to compare, in the same population, the impact of a temporary execution moratorium on the incidence of homicides.

In our study, we developed a statistical model that links changes in the incidence of Texas homicides with corresponding changes in national homicides over the immediate preceding "normal" period, 1990-1995. Using this model, we estimated the number of homicides for each month of 1996 and 1997. Treating the sudden cessation of executions and the resumption of executions at double the average rate as "events", we compared the estimated monthly homicides in the two post-events periods with the actual number of homicides (after allowing for a 30 day lag).

During the first post-event period, we found that the actual number of homicides exceeded the predicted number of homicides in nine of the thirteen months and significantly so in as many as seven of those months. The second eight month post-event period evinced no pattern save for the first and sixth months when actual homicides were significantly less than the predicted number of homicides. Most interestingly, the differences between actual and expected homicides during the two months immediately prior to the resumption of executions were significantly positive while in the first month after the resumption the difference was significantly negative, results that are consistent with the deterrence hypothesis.

Using the most conservative variant of our model, the actual number of homicides exceeded the predicted number by 90 over the 21 months of the two post-event periods. During the first post-event period the actual number of homicides exceeded the predicted number by 150 while the actual number of homicides is 60 fewer than predicted in the second post-event period.

Our evidence suggests that as a result of the unofficial moratorium on executions during most of 1996 and early 1997, Texas experienced a net increase in the number of homicides over what would have been expected had no such moratorium been in place. During the interim, there were 40 executions or three more per year than during the "normal" 1993-1995 period. The execution hiatus, therefore, appears to have spared few, if any, condemned prisoners while the citizens of Texas experienced a net 90 additional innocent lives lost to homicide. Politicians contemplating moratoriums may wish to consider the possibility that a seemingly innocuous moratorium on executions could very well come at a heavy cost.

Roberto Marchesini, Professor of Finance
contact [email protected]

Dale Cloninger, Professor, Finance and Economics
contact [email protected]

The School of Business and Public Administration
University of Houston-Clear Lake
Houston, Texas

The entire study is forthcoming in Applied Economics (probably) later this year.

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