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Ending Capital Punishment: A Conservative Cause

Leon Neyfakh's article on "The Conservative Case Against the Death Penalty" deserves a wider audience that that of the Boston Globe (or Commonweal for that matter, but we do what we can).

What Neyfakh describes as a "small but expanding group of conservatives" makes their case in conservative terms:  the death penalty is a fiscally irresponsible, anti-life, ineffective, big government policy.  A number of the conservatives actively opposing the death penalty are Catholics motivated partly or largely by their faith---people like direct mail fundraising pioneer Richard Viguerie, National Review columnist Ramesh Ponnuru, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly and former House speaker Newt Gingrich.

They're joined by conservatives of different faiths---such as Sen. John Cornyn (Church of Christ), former Attorney General Ed Meese (Lutherna), and Kentucky State Rep. David Floyd (Southern Baptist)---and of none (e.g., commentator and columnist S. E. Cupp).

Formed at last year's CPAC conference, Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty has compiled statements from a wide-ranging and impressive list of conservatives who've come to oppose the death penalty.  Even with public support for the death penalty lower than it's been in decades, a majority of Americans polled still support the execution of convicted murders.  But if the US is to abolish the death penalty in the next few decades, it will likely be due in no small part to the efforts of conservatives who work to make it happen.

About the Author

Luke Hill is a writer and community organizer in Boston. He blogs at dotCommonweal and MassCommons. 

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I would say that. yes, it is true that the death penalty does not deter murderers.  Rather it is executions that deter murderers.  There are precious few executions nowadays, and that has been true for many decades.  In effect, the anti-death penalty folks have come very close to achieving their goals.  Incidentally, I am sometimes amused that the anti's will noaw and again claim that life without possibility of parole is so much more harsh than the death penalty anyway, so why argue?  Liberals are so full of love for humanity.  Or full of something...

If the conservative case against the death penalty is that it costs too much, is anti-life, is ineffective and is a "big government policy," what is the liberal case against the death penalty?

I think liberals share the "ineffective" objection; they are quick to point out that the states with the most executions tend to be the ones with the most murders. When it comes to not trusting big government to get it right, liberals hace been doing that, in the case of the death penalty, for years. As the evidence piled up about death row mistakes, the liberals jumped on it while conservatives pooh-poohed it as bleeding-heart nonsense. Liberals echo Blackstone: "It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." (Once upon a time, but not lately, Blackstone seemed to be a conservative hero.

I was anti-death penalty before anti-death penalty was about to become cool, but I am not fond of the anti-tax argument, which goes away if you simply remove bases for appeal -- as some conservative legislatures have tried to do. Nor am I persuaded when a conservative objects to something as "anti-life" that he or she really means it. One of the great attractions of conservatism is that it allows a holder of the ideology to identify sinners and chortle when they get their comeuppance.

If anti-death penalty is about to become cool, there is that 80 percent approval of capital punishment in the conservative base to overcome. I wouldn't lay in champagne just yet for the day of abolition. 

It is interesting, though, that conservatives need to fit opposition to capital punishment into an overarching ideology. Why can't they oppose it because it simply doesn't make sense to treat killing someone as such a bad thing that there is nothing society can do about it but to kill someone?

@Bob Schwartz  (5/25, 10:16 pm) - Thanks for your comment.  What's the basis for your assertion that executions deter murderers? 

I ask because in Neyfakh's article there are links to two studies that cast profound doubt on that argument:

  • Donohue & Wolfers' review of academic literature on the death penalty leads them to conclude "estimates suggest not just “reasonable doubt” about whether there is any deterrent effect of the death penalty, but profound uncertainty. We are confident that the effects are not large, but we remain unsure even of whether they are positive or
    negative."
  • Meanwhile Zimring, Fagan & Johnson's study of Hong Kong and Singapore in the years since 1973 yields this conclusion:  "By comparing two closely matched places with huge contrasts in actual execution but no differences in homicide trends, we have generated a unique test of the exuberant claims of deterrence that have been produced over the past decade in the U.S."

I'm a liberal who sits firmly on the fence re the death penalty, at least in theory. I have a hard time arguing that execution is not justified when it comes to child murders, ethnically or religiously motivated murders, or murders that involve torture (and what murder wouldn't include some element of torture?).

But I am against current execution methods, and I am concerned that the wrong people get executed (something the Innocence Project has highlighted). I think it's also pretty obvious that a disproportionate number of poor people (and ethnic minorities who are often among the poor) are executed because they can't afford adequate representation. I think our knowledge of mental illness is vexed; to what extent can the insane truly be held accountable? And I think God will hold us accountable for prematurely cutting off the possibility of redemption.

So, in practice, I tend to be anti-death penalty. 

I wouldn't argue that life without parole is harsher than the death penalty unless a prisoner has (and many do) a death wish.

"Rather it is executions that deter murderers."

Perhaps but it seems unlikely.  In a great number of instances of murder and likely in the majority of cases of "mass" murder the perpetrator was at the very least exceedingly self destructive and often enough suicidal.  In the mind of a person so tragically consumed with guilt, revenge and rage it is more than reasonable to assume death seems less of a deterent and more a goal. 

Agree with Tom Blackburn that "...it simply doesn't make sense to treat killing someone as such a bad thing that there is nothing society can do about it but to kill someone.."

As to the comment,

Why can't they oppose it because it simply doesn't make sense to treat killing someone as such a bad thing that there is nothing society can do about it but to kill someone?

the statement 'killing someone' is, in this little solopsist exercise, meant to take the place of murder, which is the unlawful and unjustified killing of an innocent human being.  The writer, intentionally trivializing both the murder and the execution so as to appear clever, ends up appearing a pretentious ass. 

@ Bob Schwartz. What part of "killing someone" don't you understand? If I had stuck "unlawfully" in front of the first use of the phrase and "lawfully" in front of the second, someone was still being killed before God's time. Yrs, P.A.

If the conservative case against the death penalty is that it costs too much, is anti-life, is ineffective and is a "big government policy," what is the liberal case against the death penalty?

Right - this is more like, "Prominent Conservatives Make Non-conservative Arguments Against the Death Penalty".

I'm glad to see Catholic social teaching influencing the views of Catholic conservative thinkers.

Regarding some of the specifics:

  • Costs too much: there are a couple of conservative replies to this one.  One is that, in an era in which a billion dollars is government coffee money, it's not really that expensive.  Another is that if it costs too much, it's because the cost is a function of trials and incarceration and these are what cost too much, whether or not the case under consideration is a death penalty case - it's not really an anti-death-penalty argument, it's an anti-expensive-incarceration-and-multiple-layers-of-appeals argument.  Still another is that the multiple levels of appeal are themselves an anti-death-penalty safeguard, meant to ensure that we execute the right guy for the right reasons, that he had adequate legal counsel, etc.  Many people, under the principle that Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied (and also less admirable principles like Fry The Bastard) want to streamline the process and execute the convict more quickly.  Overall, I don't think cost is a compelling argument, and the implications aren't always that we should make the death penalty more rare, but rather cheaper and quicker.
     
  • Is anti-life - well, yeah.  On the other hand, in the Catholic tradition, the death penalty hasn't always been seen to be an anti-life sin, but rather as the meting out of justice.  It's not a hands-down no-brainer that the death penalty always and everywhere belongs on the same list as abortion, euthanasia, terrorist attacks and other modern examples of the Culture of Death.  
     
  • Is ineffective - as a deterrent, yeah, pretty much
     
  • Big government policy - this is one of those little intra-conservative policy differences that drive me batty.  "Get the government out of the business of serving the interests of justice and meting out punishment to wrong-doers" is a slogan that may gain some traction with doctrinaire Libertarians but makes no sense to me.  If the government isn't going to punish criminals, then who is - private citizens with guns?  No thanks.

 

 

 

 

If the conservative case against the death penalty is that it costs too much, is anti-life, is ineffective and is a "big government policy," what is the liberal case against the death penalty?

Sorry, meant to also say this in my previous comment: all of the reasons named here to oppose the death penalty (or at least to be "Concerned About" the death penalty) are also reason to oppose such things as rendition/waterboarding of prisoners, and military forays into Iraq.  In the spirit of consistency of principle, will these prominent conservatives organize to express concern about these things?

 

It was Bill O'Reilly who, though he is oppossed to the death penalty on the grounds that he values human life and is oppossed to revenge killing, also said that he does not lose sleep if innocent people such as familiy or neighbors of targeted "terrorists" are killed in drone strikes.Just the fact that they're relatives and or neighbors and have not taken steps to remove themselves from such "evil terrorists" makes them -not such good people themselves,was the reasoning he expressed.So much for valuing human life even innocent human life,including children,that would mean!I know he can hide behind" we don't deliberatly kill these innocent people" but when he says he does not lose sleep over the killing of these  innocent people but[pressusmably] does over the killing of convicted murderers, then he's gone beyond the" as long as it's not deliberate it's acceptable position" of supporters of targeted killings of those with the label terrorists!How could with good conscience you opposse the killing of one group of people[convicted murderers] but not oppose the killing of another group[innocent people who when we drop bombs on a home ,in order to get one terrorists, are aware that innocent people may be there too]?His statement that they're not so good themselves if they choose to be near a "evil terrorist" speaks for itself; he does not really value human life equally-even innocent human life is of less value to him then a convicted murderers when  some people[people with a label 'terrorists} need killing!I myself defer to Church teaching when it comes to the death penalty;though more and more ,when i think about it, I oppose it with my heart ,if not my head.Perhaps it should remain on the books, but not be carried out -a last minute reprieve or commutation.

I wonder if we're right to assume that death penalty supporters/opposers fall along conservative/liberal lines. It seems to me that considering the death penalty requires less in the way of political thinking and more in the way of moral considerations that might transcend mere politics. (Unless you're Bob Schwartz, and then everything is clear as a bell, and if not, then you're a pretentious ass. Every time Bob posts here, I spend several enjoyable minutes imagining encounters between Bob and Jesus Christ, in which Bob, swirling the ice in his Old Fashioned and comfortably puffing a good cigar, good naturedly tells Jesus what he got entirely wrong.)

Anyhoo, maybe that's what Jim P is getting to when he's parsing the arguments above. I.e., it costs too much to execute people? If the death penalty is truly a just way to handle people who have committed heinous crimes, ought that to stand in our way? 

I also think that the group of conservatives in the "concerned about the death penalty" group vary widely in their intellectual and moral acumen. For instance, I don't think Bill O'Reilly is on par with Ramesh Ponnuru. Or that an opportunist like Newt Gingrich carries the weight of a long-time, committed conservative activist like like Richard Viguerie.

Of course any given group of liberals opposed to the death penalty would also contain the same various assortment of high- and low-level thinkers.

Jean Raber:  Your comment,

(Unless you're Bob Schwartz, and then everything is clear as a bell, and if not, then you're a pretentious ass. Every time Bob posts here, I spend several enjoyable minutes imagining encounters between Bob and Jesus Christ, in which Bob, swirling the ice in his Old Fashioned and comfortably puffing a good cigar, good naturedly tells Jesus what he got entirely wrong.)

was not as stinging a rebuke as it could have been because of your good humor and wordsmithing.  And hey, I got mentioned by none other than the estimable Jean Raber!  However, I don't smoke or drink whiskey.  My downfall is a cold frosty beer, which I limit to roughly two or so a month.  Incidentally, I'm not in the habit of correcting anything Our Lord has said, unless you are equating commonweal's liberal bloggers' maunderings with His words.

Well, dammit, Bob, I had you pegged for a Thurston Howell-type gated-community dweller. How dare you not live down to my stereotypes? I bet you don't even wear plaid pants to the Country Club on Saturday afternoons. Is it possible you don't even golf? Yeesh. Now I have to go revise all the images in my head. Are you by chance ex-military?

I'm a liberal, but I haven't smoked a doob since 1978 (it was not for a medical condition, and I did inhale at that particular time). I do knit my own socks with fair trade Uruguayan wool, and I wear them with my Birkenstocks on cold days. I have not used cosmetics for at least 10 years because a) I am 60 now and it won't make any difference and b) I feel sorry for the bunnies and mice who have to test this stuff. (I offer these details in case you want to imagine me maundering and singing "Kumbaya" with the other liberals.)

Country club?  Wow, you definitely were aiming at the wrong target!  But then I've aimed at a lot of wrong targets in my time.  And yes, I'm ex military:  enlisted Air Force radar technician.

And, during my jazz hipster days I smoked a few joints (that's what we called them at the time), even did a little of the old injectables when I wasn't in some sleazy dive playing my tenor sax.

But that was another time and another life.  Trouble with you Jean is that you're going to give liberals a good name.  Can't have that.  Say something mean.

Geez, Bob, now you sound like a good friend who died a couple years ago. Also ex Air Force (20 years, captain). Wrote for "Stars and Stripes," Apparently had his own hipster days. Always talking about Urbie Green, Maynard Ferguson, Dave Brubeck. I used to go to Mass occasionally at his little Melkite parish, which was interesting. Died of a stroke a few years back. Maybe talking politics with me didn't help.

My kid has been studying trombone since 6th grade (jazz mostly, but check out Mnozil Brass and Maniacal 4). Won the Louis Armstrong Jazz Award this year and will be taking up performance, composition and arranging in college. I tried to steer him into the Coast Guard, which has a good band plus also teaches skills that can be used in real life. He does well with regimentation and structure, so still might end up there.

 

Congratulations to your son!  As far as jazz goes, it's all about the II-V-I chords, but not a particularly rewarding career path unless he gets a doctorate in music, in which case he can pusue a tenured position teaching jazz.  An old bandmate, JoAnne Brackeen, is a professor of jazz piano at Berklee, in Boston, but Berklee is, well, Berklee.

Your son sounds like a fine young man, and I hope he does choose to join the Coast Guard.

Hey, Bob, if it's any consolation, I've pictured you all along as a beer-swilling, enlisted-man crankypants :-)  

 

I consider myself consoled.  God Bless.

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