As the nation debates the fairness of Timothy McVeigh’s date with death, the controversy over capital punishment is heating up, too.

Three economists at Emory University are stirring the pot even more with a new study that concludes an average of 18 lives are saved each time a criminal is executed.

"Clearly, executions do reduce murder," said Dr. Hashem Dezhbakhsh, a co-author of the report. "As we have found in this study, each execution reduces murder by 18 with a margin of error of plus or minus 10."

Factoring in that error margin, the research concludes that each death sentence carried out saves at least eight and perhaps as many as 28 lives.

The authors say they spent four years compiling the study using 20 years of detailed data and more sophisticated statistical techniques than any previous research on the deterrent effect of the death penalty.

"We are not coming into this debate with ideological predispositions," Dezhbakhsh said. "We are trying to deal with the facts as they are and our loyalties to the scientific methodologies."

But critics scoff that the study has no real statistical basis.

"The report plays games with numbers," said Michael Mears of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. "I think it sends an entirely wrong message to the general public, who may be grasping for some reason to justify the death penalty."

Capital punishment opponents like Mears point to other figures suggesting that the death penalty doesn’t deter murderers.

"If the murder rate is higher in Texas than it is in those states without the death penalty, that certainly should call into question the validity of this premise," he said.

But the report’s authors say comparing states’ records doesn’t work. The right way to compare, they say, is to figure out what the crime rate would be if a state without capital punishment – like Massachusetts – had the death penalty, and what would happen to crime if a state with capital punishment – like Texas – took it away.

Some call Timothy McVeigh the ideal poster boy for the death penalty. The convicted Oklahoma City bomber is scheduled to die by lethal injection June 11 now that a judge has denied his stay of execution. And as states wrestle with possible moratoriums on capital punishment, the Emory study may help shape their stance on the issue – or at the very least, add fuel to the fire.

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