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Nate’s Notes 63: John J. Donohue III | The Death Penalty and Humility

By April 5, 2023June 8th, 2023No Comments

John J. Donohue III

Professor at Stanford Law School

John J. Donohue III - Faculty - Stanford Law School

John Donohue is an inspiring professor and teacher, but he has also made an impact on public policy. And I love John’s goal of trying to reduce harm and improve things where he can.

For example, John’s research on the death penalty found that the death penalty was not having a deterrent effect on crime, and it was all too often administered arbitrarily and unfairly. For example, research shows that for every eight people executed, one person on death row is exonerated. Given the data John presented and the arguments his team made, the Connecticut Supreme Court abolished the death penalty.

John’s goal of trying to reduce harm also led him to conduct research on gun ownership and crime. But rather than focus on the findings of his research, which are many, John discussed the importance of humility. It’s harder to tease out causal relationships than John had at first realized, so it’s important to maintain some humility when we think we know something. For example, researchers believed for decades that red wine improved people’s health. But now it appears that the opposite is true.

I could have listened to John for days, as we only scratched the surface of what he’s done and the lessons he’s learned. But I’m grateful for what he did share:

Strive to reduce harm, improve things where we can, all while remaining humble in our conclusions.

It’s a simple idea. Please take it seriously. 

John J. Donohue III Bio:

John J. Donohue III is a Stanford law professor and economist. He’s widely known for his research on the death penalty, gun ownership, crime, civil rights, and abortion, and his research on the impact of abortion was popularized by the book Freakonomics.

John was a professor at Stanford Law School from 1995-2004, then at Yale Law School from 2004-2010. He then returned to Stanford Law School in 2010, where he was my torts professor my 1L year.

John earned an undergraduate degree from Hamilton College, a law degree from Harvard, and a Ph.D. in economics from Yale.

I hope you enjoyed learning from John Donohue, because I always do.  

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