Why Tomorrow's Conservatives Will Reject The Death Penalty

Politicians going after Republican votes know from the polls that opposing capital punishment is a career-ending decision. But, a growing group of conservatives say it's time to reject a policy that they describe as an anti-life intrusion by big government. Is this the future of conservative politics?

Writing in the Boston Globe, Leon Neyfakh profiles activists across the country who have come to the conclusion that execution by the state is an affront to the core principles that conservatives claim to espouse.

Among them is Marc Hyden, who grew up in a Southern family of Republican voters, and took it for granted that being pro-death penalty was a bedrock belief. Previously a Florida field representative for the NRA, Hyden is now an organizer at Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty:

For one thing, Hyden strongly believed government should intrude as little as possible on the lives of individuals; allowing the state to execute people struck him as the most extreme form of government intrusion imaginable. For another, he was against abortion, and he wasn't sure how to square his belief in the sanctity of life with a policy that he knew could result in the erroneous execution of innocent people. Hyden also believed the government should be fiscally responsible. The death penalty is an astonishingly expensive public program. Because of the appeals process and the slow pace of the justice system, studies have shown, keeping convicts on death row ends up costing the state much more than locking them up in a general population prison.

What finally changed Hyden's mind, he says today, was encountering criminology data suggesting that the death penalty does not serve as a meaningful deterrent to would-be criminals. "Deterrence was the last thing I had to cling to," Hyden said. "I figured, even if it's inconsistent with fiscal conservatism, even if it's inconsistent with pro-life policies and limited government, we can save lives by deterring future murderers. And then I saw several studies that showed that's patently false."

Hyden's organization also discusses the implications of convictions in the DNA era, and debunks some popular myths:

    • Hundreds of DNA exonerations reveal that murder cases are often riddled with problems: mistaken eyewitnesses, bad lawyers, shoddy forensics, unreliable jailhouse snitches, coerced confessions, and more.
    • DNA cannot solve these problems—it can only tell us how bad they are. DNA evidence exists in just 5-10% of criminal cases—far fewer than one would think from TV crime shows like CSI.
    • In those few cases where DNA evidence is available, courts can block access to DNA testing even when it could exonerate someone.
    • Contrary to popular belief, the appeals process is not designed to catch cases of innocence. It is simply to determine whether the original trial was conducted properly. Most exonerations came only because of the extraordinary efforts of people working outside the system—pro bono lawyers, family members, even students.

    Although national approval of capital punishment is at its lowest point in 40 years, it still has the support of 60% of the country. Broken down by party, it's 81% among Republicans, 60% among Independents and 47% among Democrats. So, it appears a seismic shift in public opinion is unlikely anytime soon.

    But Richard Viguerie, another prominent conservative activist, believes that, at least among Republicans, a change in attitude can be evolutionary, if not revolutionary. He points to recent conservative-sponsored conferences on prison reforms and inefficiencies in the criminal justice system—which would have been unthinkable in prior decades—as evidence that there's an opening for his message.

    "We've come kind of late in life to realize that the criminal justice system is part of government and that while we hold the government's feet to the fire in every other area, we've overlooked law enforcement. Once we begin to get conservatives to see that the criminal justice system is part of government...it's going to be easier to convince them that we need to reconsider the death penalty."

    Read Leon Neyfakh's full article at the Boston Globe.