The most unlikely convert to opposing the death penalty

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If someone had told me five years ago that I would be working to end the death penalty, I would have laughed at them. I was an ardent supporter of the death penalty at that time and my position was based on simple reasons: I believed in justice, I thought our justice system was the best mankind had ever known, and I believed the penalty was reserved for only the worst of the worst.

I unwillingly began researching the death penalty a number of years ago when asked to do so by a former boss. I obliged, mostly with the goal of being better able to debate him on the issue the following Monday. But what I found surprised me.

{mosads}Like most Americans, I believed our system was designed to let 100 guilty men go free rather than one innocent person perish. Despite being a limited-government advocate and someone who frequently ranted about the failures of government in other areas, I for some reason thought the justice system was the exception to the rule and followed this principle. What I discovered was that one person had been fully exonerated for every 10 executions in this country. Clearly, many innocent people were perishing in our system.

I also learned that the most substantial costs for the death penalty stemmed from the trial portion of the cases, meaning that speeding up appeals processes would not only fail to conserve our tax dollars, but would also very likely mean more innocent people would be killed. A North Carolina study actually found that death penalty trials cost four times that of the appellate process.

The deterrence argument for the death penalty also failed to support my belief. In fact, I found the opposite to be true. Regions of the country that used the death penalty the most continuously had the highest rates of violent crime, while regions that did not use it had much lower rates. By all indications, it would seem that this is due to the amount of resources that law enforcement has at its disposal to solve crimes. With an average homicide clearance rate of only 51 percent in the U.S., and even lower solvency rates for other crimes, there appears to be a relationship that the resources spent pursuing a cherry-picked number of cases for the death penalty actually contribute to fewer crimes being solved. That’s not justice for all. That’s hanging the majority of crime victims out to dry.

When you look at who gets the death penalty in this country, it becomes vividly apparent that we value victims differently, and that it is hardly the “worst of the worst” receiving this penalty. The place where a person commits a crime is actually the biggest determinate for whether or not they will get the death penalty—not what they did. This is because the majority of death penalty cases come from only 2 percent of counties, and to date, all executions since reinstatement, since 1976, have come from fewer than 16 percent of counties.

The next largest determinates, though, are whether or not a person can afford a good attorney, followed by the race of that person’s victim. One in four people on Texas’ death row had a public defender that was later disbarred or disciplined. Seventy three percent of those on death row in North Carolina were tried before the creation of an indigent defense office. And in 96 percent of studies on death penalty cases, there was evidence of racial bias against the defendant, victim, or both. In Louisiana you are 96 percent more likely to get the death penalty if your victim was white. In California you are three times more likely to be sentenced to death for killing a white person.

These are the reasons that conservatives and libertarians are turning against the death penalty. It is vastly more expensive than any other sentence or component of the criminal justice system. It is arbitrary and largely applied to the poorest among us. The system is marked with racial bias, wrongful convictions, poor representation, corruption and trauma. It does not deter crime, and it consumes resources that could be used to actually make our communities safer.

This year alone, seven states are considering death penalty repeal legislation introduced by Republicans. This is not an anomaly. Since 2000, we have seen the number of GOP lawmakers introducing repeal legislation increase by ten-fold, and 67 percent of those have done so in red states.

We can do better. As conservatives, we pride ourselves on limiting government, using our tax dollars efficiently, and protecting the sanctity of human life. The death penalty fails to meet any of those measurements. Expect the trend of Republican support for ending the death penalty to continue to grow.

Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Hannah was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.


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