RALEIGH – Capital punishment is a serious public and moral issue. I have written about it a number of times in this space, discussing aspects such as public opinion about the death penalty, the grave risks to public safety and justice posed by the moratorium movement, and specific legislation to suspend executions. Allow me today, if you will, to use capital punishment as a tool to make a broader point.

I’m thinking about the issue because of my participation a few days ago in a panel discussion on capital punishment put together by the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Raleigh’s Meredith College. I was the only advocate of the death penalty on a panel that included John Strange, acting executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, and Dr. Rhonda Zingraff, head of the college’s Department of Sociology. Alan Gell, a former death row inmate, was to be the featured speaker, but did not show.

I appreciated the invitation and enjoyed the discussion, let me hasten to add. As viewers of “N.C. Spin” will attest, I’m not exactly unfamiliar with being stacked up 2-to-1 or 3-to-1. The odds sound about right. However, the way the event unfolded was illustrative.

While much of the discussion focused on questions of morality and fairness – Strange, appropriately enough, opened with a personal statement of faith, not a series of public-policy arguments – there was an exchange between Zingraff and me on the important empirical issue of whether capital punishment has a deterrence effect. Zingraff initially told the mostly student audience that it was a settled fact in the literature that executions did not deter murders. I challenged her, citing perhaps the most commonplace recent finding one hears in the death penalty debate: that each execution saves an average of 18 innocent lives. If that’s true, I argued, then suspending or abolishing capital punishment, even in response to genuine and legitimate concerns about its application, is an act fraught with real moral peril.

Zingraff responded that no serious studies, published in peer-reviewed journals, had so concluded. I was surprised by this answer, to say the least. I’m a layman, and do not specialize in criminal-justice issues, but I’m well aware of a number of recent studies, published in academic journals, that have used extensive sets of data and the latest statistical approaches to demonstrate a deterrence effect. There are, of course, analysts who challenge the design of these studies, but surely their existence is not in doubt. (Here’s a partial list of recent studies with varying conclusions – don’t just accept the abstract, follow the links and read the papers.)

Indeed, a telling sign of where things are going in the execution-deterrence debate was a paper co-written by Cass Sunstein, the prominent liberal legal scholar at the University of Chicago, that recognized the importance of these findings and grappled with the resulting moral dilemma for would-be abolitionists. As the authors put it: “For many years, the deterrent effect of capital punishment was sharply disputed. But a great deal of recent evidence strengthens the claim that capital punishment has large deterrence effects. The reason for the shift is that a wave of sophisticated econometric studies have exploited a newly available form of data, so called ‘panel data’ that uses all information from a set of units (states or counties) and follows that data over an extended period of time.”

So, the lesson here – and I mean for everyone, whatever the issue or viewpoint – is never assume. Always check, and check again. Policy issues are complex and draw attention from a wide variety of individuals and institutions. If you can think of a question, someone has probably asked it, and likely someone has answered it differently than you would. That doesn’t make you wrong, but it does mean you have to recognize and rebut.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.