Thursday, May 1, 2008

Ah, Statistics

You just gotta love the Chronicle.

What other major city has a newspaper that writes an article and then actually pays a columnist to write her own version of what the article means? It's cute really. It's kind of like Lisa Falkenberg has the journalistic equivalent of an Easy Bake oven where she writes a little column that corresponds to what the grown-up article is.

Today's topic is about a recent study created by Scott Phillips, a University of Denver sociology and criminology professor, which analyzed those cases where Harris County sought the death penalty, broken down by race. (NOTE: I haven't seen the entire report (although I would very much like to), so I'm relying on what was reported in the articles for my article.)

An interesting idea? Absolutely.

The results? Probably rather disappointing to Mrs. Kase (I mean, Jeff Cohen).

Turns out that between the years 1992 and 1999, Harris County sought the death penalty on 27% of white defendants charged with capital murder, 25% of Hispanics charged with capital murder, and 25% of African-Americans charged with capital murder. As a white person, I plan to protest around the CJC tomorrow based on the 2% increase in my likelihood of getting the death penalty if I'm ever charged with capital murder, because clearly, it is based solely on my race.

The beautiful thing about statistics is that you can "statistify" pretty much anything. As a matter of fact, on the drive home today, I realized that out of the restaurants that I frequent, only about 2% of them start with a vowel. Yep, I discriminate when I eat. I frequent Burger King, Taco Bell, Chuy's, McDonald's, and Whataburger. I realize that I am clearly not frequenting Escalante's and Imperial Palace enough.

The above listed statistic is about as useful to you in your day-to-day life as Dr. Phillips' study on when the Harris County District Attorney's Office sought death on capital cases.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not faulting the study for being created. If the statistics had come out with something dramatic, like say, the State sought death on 60% of African-Americans charged with capitals, versus 15% of white defendants, that would have been extremely alarming.

Frankly, I'm glad that he did the study. But the results aren't likely what he was hoping to find.

The statistics end up showing that a white defendant is slightly more likely to have the death penalty sought against him or her than an African-American or Hispanic person.

Not that such information would slow down an intrepid journalist such as Pippi Longstocking. Her article ran under the headline of "Remedying unequal punishment". To support her mathematically illogical position, she notes that Phillips had somehow miraculously quantified those cases which were "serious" or "heinous". Phillips concluded that under the definitions of "serious" or "heinous", African-Americans were disproportionately sought out for the death penalty.

In a related note, it appears that Phillips studied statistics under Republican D.A. candidate Pat Lykos.

Look kids, if the criminal justice system was so easy that we could put a meaningful statistic on it, 95% of the attorneys would be out of jobs. Each case is different and complex. There is a difference between the convenience store robbery where the defendant panics and shoots the clerk and leaves, versus the one where he shoots the clerk multiple times and seems to be enjoying every last minute of it. There are countless factors that juries assess.

And speaking of juries, Falkenberg cites cases where the juries returned life sentences (even though the State was seeking death) as some sort of proof that the community was trying to somehow rectify the State's erroneous decision to seek death. I wonder if the Journalistic Genius figured into the equation that jurors come from all walks of life and just a single juror's refusal to give the death penalty will ultimately result in a life sentence via mistrial?

The bottom-line is that this study didn't come out the way that the death penalty abolitionists had hoped.

I don't blame people for being against the death penalty. I really don't.

What I have an issue with is trying to mix and adjust statistics to try and prove a point that they don't actually support.

For future reference, a little intellectual honesty would go a lot further with me.


Unknown said...

(Continuing on the hair theme) Pippi Longstocking's splitting so many hairs she ought to just go ahead and cut it all off.

Anonymous said...

Good point about the Chronicle. When I first moved to Houston in 1980, the Chronicle was a tremendous newspaper, full of depth and well-written articles. Of course, it had the Houston Post to compete with.

Today, it's nothing more than another National Enquirer. So much for the Hearst empire.

Anonymous said...

Pippi Longstocking! You just made my day! :)

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