Capital Punishment: an Incentive to Kill

<i> Watt Espy, director of the Capital Punishment Research Project in Headland, Ala., has documented more than 14,500 executions in the United States. </i>

Now that execution of Nevada inmate Carroll Cole has been carried out, as he wished, we should take a look at the issue of capital punishment from a different perspective: Does it actually create an incentive to kill in certain people, rather than serving as a deterrent?

While four of the first five U.S. executions that followed the lifting of the 1972 Supreme Court-ordered moratorium were, like Cole’s, consensual, there were no others where the condemned man actually wanted to die until this year. Then three of the 17 persons executed before Cole also demanded their deaths at the hands of the state.

Regardless of the reason why a Death Row inmate abandons his appeals and requests the death penalty, this must be regarded as a suicidal act wherein the state, which supposedly opposes acts of self-destruction, is used by an individual who has already shown his disregard for the rules of society to bring about his own death. This is by no means a new phenomenon.

By 1982 England had long abolished capital punishment. So, with the ingenuity that is all too often possessed by the insane, Arthur Richard Jackson, 47, legally changed his middle name so that he could obtain a visa to return to the United States, from which he had been earlier deported.


According to written documents that he carried at the time of his arrest and his own subsequent admissions, his sole purpose in going to California was to murder a young actress whom he had never met in order that he might be legally put to death. Fortunately, he did not succeed, but he did inflict physical and emotional scars on the woman whom he had selected as his victim.

Even though Jackson failed, many have been successful in their quest to use capital punishment to satisfy their own perverse wish for death.

Two of the earliest such incidents occurred in Pennsylvania. In August, 1760, John Bruelman, a jeweler and member of the provincial militia, entered a Philadelphia tavern where he shot and killed a billiard player whom he had never seen before. His only explanation was that he was ". . . weary of life, and had committed the crime to escape from the toils and troubles of the world . . . .” He was hanged on Oct. 22, 1760. Five years later, Henry Halbert, who was also tired of living, cut the throat of a 12-year-old boy ". . . in order that he might lose his own life . . . .” Halbert also was hanged.

A more recent example is the case of James D. French, who, on Aug. 10, 1966, became the last person to be executed by the state of Oklahoma. French, who had stabbed an adult when he was only 5 years old, was 22 in 1958, when he was released from the psychiatric ward of an Alameda County, Calif., hospital.


French hitchhiked to Oklahoma, and shot and killed a motorist who had given him a ride. At his trial he asked that his attorney request the death penalty. The lawyer properly refused, and French was infuriated when he was given a life sentence. In 1961 he told the Oklahoma prison chaplain that he planned to murder someone else so that the state would be forced to kill him. The chaplain warned prison authorities, but they did not isolate French, and four days later he strangled his cellmate. After conviction for this second senseless murder, he finally received the death sentence that he had sought.

In his 1983 book, “Brothers in Blood,” Clark Howard clearly establishes that the primary motive for the shocking 1973 murders of six members of the Alday family in Seminole County, Ga., was the desire of the leader of the quartet of killers, 19-year-old Carl Isaacs, to be executed. An escapee from a Maryland prison, where he had been brutally gang-raped, Isaacs was determined that, should he be recaptured, he would be executed rather than returned to prison.

The four murdered a youth in Pennsylvania and stole his car. Pennsylvania had no valid death-penalty statute at the time, so Isaacs and his companions went south, where most of the states had reenacted the death penalty. They slaughtered five men in the same family, then sexually assaulted and killed the wife of one of them. Isaacs was, as he wished, sentenced to die, as were two of his companions. They are now on Death Row at Georgia State Prison, while the fourth killer, who was allowed to give state’s evidence in exchange for his life, is serving a sentence in Pennsylvania for the murder committed there.

While it might be argued that, with the possible exception of Gary Gilmore, none of the other consensual executions since the reinstitution of the death penalty were by persons whose reasons for murder were based on a suicidal desire, it must nonetheless be conceded that the very existence of the death penalty has resulted in the deaths of, and serious injuries to, innocent persons by suicidally inclined individuals who lacked the willpower or courage to kill themselves.

In these and many other cases the instrument of death has actually been an incentive to violence.