Fiction, Alternate History, and Statistics

As mentioned before, I have written a number of unshared stories depicting a character being executed.  One common theme I’ve used to set this up is that the United States (and, perhaps, the whole world) retained an attitude towards capital punishment similar to what we had in the first third, or so, of the 20th century.

As an aside, when I’ve played with alternate history I’ve been more interested in the results than the point of divergence.  So, my scenarios often deal with indistinct or multiple points of divergence.

One way I’ve contemplated is that some combination of factors caused the US to amend The Constitution in the 1920’s or 1930’s ensuring that capital punishment cannot be challenged using the 8th Amendment’s “cruel and unusual” phrase.  A recent version I came up with is:

Amendment XX
(Ratified August 18, 1928)
Section 1
The punishment by death carried out by common and accepted means shall not be held to be cruel nor unusual.
Section 2
Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to define crimes carrying the punishment of death, set methods for carrying such punishments and to ensure that such punishments are carried out without undue delay.
Section 3
Nothing in this amendment shall be taken to limit access to the right to appeal the results of criminal trials, nor shall it guarantee unlimited appeals of any single conviction.

The existing amendments, starting with the 20th, would follow but be numbered one higher.

Another thing I’ve tried to do is predict how many executions the U.S. would see should the execution rate match that over a number of periods covering part of the first half of the 20th century.  Compared to what we see today, these numbers are quite surprising.

I’ve modeled this data using the Espy database – a collection of executions in the U.S., its territories that eventually became states, and the colonies that preceded them since about 1602.  My copy has been manually updated periodically, but is not up to date.  Supplementing this data is U.S. Census data, by county, since 1900.  After using a curve-fitting (cubic spline) algorithm to estimate the population of each county – and thus the whole country – each year, I calculated the number of people per execution.

From this, I’ve come up with four approximate rates:

  • By looking at the smallest number of people per execution (the highest rate), I estimate 592 executions in 2014
  • By looking at the smallest number over a period from 1925 to 1945, I estimate 490 executions in 2014.
  • By looking at the mean number over a period from 1933 to 1939, I estimate 429 executions.
  • By looking at the mean number over a period from 1925 to 1945, I estimate 392 executions in 2014.

Personally, I suspect that the 429 execution number would be close, presuming the amendment listed above.

The other part I’ve thought about is what methods of execution would be used, and what crimes would carry the death penalty.  I suspect that the methods of execution in use in 2014 would probably be pretty similar to today – unless the Supreme Court ruled that the amendment meant that only methods in use in 1928 were valid.  But, I think the distribution might be different – with more states retaining earlier methods of execution and fewer using lethal injection.

When it comes to crimes, I suspect some changes since 1928.  I do think that drug trafficking would carry a real death penalty – instead of the provisions that have never been tested that we currently have.  It is also likely that child molestation, or child rape, will also carry the death penalty.