An empiricist tackles crime
Murder by handgun and state-sanctioned execution are both typically American practices, says Berkeley law professor

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs



William G. Simon Professor of Law Frank Zimring concentrates on the analysis of criminal-justice statistics — one of a very few specialists in this unglamorous, but crucially important, aspect of the law.
Peg Skorpinski photo

16 October 2002 | It’s only natural that Frank Zimring went into law. After all, his mother, who passed the California Bar in 1933, practiced at various times throughout her life. And his father? He was a writer for the “Perry Mason” TV show.

“I essentially went into the family business,” the Berkeley law professor says with a chuckle. “My father also created ‘The Creature From the Black Lagoon,’ though I don’t think that had as much of an effect on my career choice.”

It was another, more dramatic event that bolstered his desire to become a criminal lawyer. At age 10, young Zimring saw a newspaper photograph of Ethel Rosenberg in the electric chair. She and her husband, Julius, were convicted of treason and executed in 1953. “There was a transparent horror in that photo,” he recalls. “It prompted me to become a death-penalty abolitionist early in the game.”

His boyhood dream of arguing high-profile cases in front of packed courtrooms shifted while he was a student at the University of Chicago Law School in the 1960s. His true calling, he discovered, lay not in practicing law, but in teaching and researching it.

While this career is traditionally less glamorous than trial lawyering, the limelight has not eluded Zimring. In fact, he has become something of a media darling, taking daily calls from journalists around the country seeking comment on a variety of criminal-justice issues, ranging from deterrence and juvenile crime to capital punishment and imprisonment.
He had no intention of becoming a go-to guy for these topics; he says it happened as a result of “demographics.”

Radical sentencing law
“I came to Berkeley in 1983,” Zimring recalls, “and the following years were an astonishing time in California. Between 1980 and 1991, the state’s prison population more than quadrupled.” Then, in 1994, the Three Strikes Law was passed, mandating at least 25 years’ imprisonment for any twice-convicted violent felon subsequently convicted of a third felony, even a nonviolent one. Zimring calls it “far and away the most radical sentencing law ever created here. Boalt Hall’s Criminal Justice Research Program, which I direct, was one of the only places analyzing these phenomena from an empirical standpoint and providing hard data on their effects.”

Why is Zimring’s discipline so unusual?
“The field’s fact-centered ap-proach and the large-scale research it requires aren’t the kinds of endeavors revered in legal education,” he explains. “Most law schools are in the business of training lawyers, and few are interested in law as an academic study. But we found a home here at Boalt.”

Zimring first gained notice for his research shortly after graduating from the University of Chicago Law School in 1967. He studied the meteoric rise in homicide rates in Chicago during the mid-1960s and its connection to the increased availability of handguns. The groundbreaking study was published in 1968, his first year as a professor at the University of Chicago, just a week after Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated.

“Shortly after RFK’s killing, President Johnson appointed a national commission on the causes and prevention of violence, and I was tapped to direct the task force on firearms,” says Zimring. “Though I was only 25 years old, I was the senior authority on the issue because research in this area hadn’t been done before.”

The escalating murder rate in Chicago was replicated in other U.S. cities as well, a trend that would continue for decades.

“Between 1965 and 1974, the homicide rate in U.S. cities doubled, and it hovered at that level until the late 1990s,” says Zimring, who observes that “America’s propensity for fatal violence sets us apart from all other developed nations.”

For example, in 1990 a person’s chances of becoming a victim of robbery or burglary were about the same for London and New York City (burglary is higher in London, robbery higher in New York). But, notes Zimring, the likelihood of getting killed during a burglary or robbery in New York was 54 times higher.

“Killing is a uniquely American trait. We practice more of our violence without limiting principles; there are no Marquis of Queensbury rules. Part of it is due to the availability and use of handguns, but part of it is cultural. The ways in which manhood is proven here are not limited by the instruments that can be used, or the extreme consequences to be risked. In Australia, for example, men punch each other in barroom brawls, while Americans use highly lethal handguns and knives in the same sort of fight.”

Death penalty on shaky ground
One major policy shift that accompanied the increasing rates of violence in U.S. was the re-introduction of the death penalty in many states. But the practice is standing on shaky ground these days, Zimring believes.

“In the 25 years since it’s been back on the books, capital punishment has become increasingly controversial and troublesome. And it isn’t working. We have a 45-year supply of death-row inmates nationally. In California, more of them will die from natural causes than by lethal injection.”

Executions don’t happen much north of the Mason-Dixon line, says Zimring, because there is a profound ambivalence about them, both in society at large and within the legal system.
“It makes people anxious because they feel putting people to death is a gratuitous penalty, and aren’t sure it’s really needed,” he says. “Couple this with a lack of commitment to providing decent attorneys to condemned prisoners, and you have a capital-punishment system that has ground to a halt.”

Our nation’s mixed feelings, along with pressure from the world’s other developed nations, all of which have ended capital punishment, have convinced Zimring that the American executioner is an “endangered species.” He predicts the abolition of the practice within the next couple of decades. “I hope I’ll still be teaching and writing,” he says, “when state governments end this unnecessary brutality.”


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