Conservative change in the death penalty debate

Death Penalty
by Marvin Olasky

Posted on Thursday, October 10, 2013, at 1:11 pm

Editor’s note: Marvin Olasky’s cover story in the current issue of WORLD magazine focuses on what the Bible says about the death penalty and what life is like on death row. In a series of 10 columns here on (posted Oct. 7–18), Marvin addresses public policy issues involving deterrence, discrimination, and arbitrariness in capital punishment.

Capital punishment debates used to pit liberals against conservatives. That’s often not the case anymore. The Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty website has an impressive array of folks from the right who characterize capital punishment (as currently practiced in the United States) as one more failed government program. As columnist George Will put it, “Conservatives, especially, should draw this lesson. … Capital punishment, like the rest of the criminal justice system, is a government program, so skepticism is in order.”

Three other observations, starting with columnist Rod Dreher: “I quit believing in capital punishment when I became convinced that the state is not trustworthy to use this power responsibly.” chairman Richard Viguerie: “Conservatives have every reason to believe the death penalty system is no different from any politicized, costly, inefficient, bureaucratic, government-run operation, which we conservatives know are rife with injustice.” Cato Institute founder Edward H. Crane: Capital punishment is … morally justified, but … the government is often so inept and corrupt that innocent people might die as a result.”

Opposition has emerged not only in Washington but also at state and local levels. Marshall Hurley, former general counsel of the North Carolina Republican Party, observed, “For those who believe in the virtue of limited government and criticize roundly when government does not work well, capital punishment does not meet fundamental conservative standards. Montana state Rep. Christy Clark said, “It is time for conservatives to do what they do best and insist that a wasteful, inefficient government program gets off the books. … Small government and the death penalty don’t go together.”

Given the cost of mandatory and prolonged appeals of death sentences, conservatives have brought up budget issues. Young Americans for Liberty founder Jeff Frazee said, “It costs the taxpayers more to put a man to death than keeping him locked up for life.” John McLaughlin of TV’s The McLaughlin Group opined, “The biggest government waste: the death penalty. An individual death-penalty case could climb to $100 million, much of it spent at the litigation level.” Former U.S. Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr observed, “Society is not equipped to handle death penalty cases because of resources. Large law firms are not willing at this stage to take these cases on, at a cost of many thousands of dollars, in order to make sure that if the public wants the death penalty, it is not administered with arbitrariness and caprice.”

Conservatives Concerned also highlights religious objections. Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, said, “I’m opposed to the death penalty not because I think it’s unconstitutional per se [but because] the taking of life is not the way to handle even the most significant of crimes. … I think you are shortcutting the whole process of redemption. … I don’t want to be the person that stops that process from taking place” Media Research Center president Brent Bozell: “Since we believe each person has a soul, and is capable of achieving salvation, life in prison is now an alternative to the death penalty.”

Listen to Marvin Olasky discuss his cover story on the death penalty on The World and Everything in It:

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is Reforming Journalism. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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