Five men face a date with the needle after attorney general William Barr ordered the first federal executions in 16 years. In response, liberals have resorted to the sort of self-defeating rhetoric that has plagued the abolitionist movement. Rolling Stone’s Andrew Cohen complains about the ‘dripping scorn for the condemned’ in the Justice Department’s press release. The New Republic’s Matt Ford accuses AG Barr of ‘making every American citizen an equal participant in the government’s premeditated taking of human life’. With arctic detachment, he adds: ‘To make its decision more palatable, the Justice Department chose five prisoners who committed crimes against children or the elderly.’
The crimes themselves weren’t all that palatable. White supremacist Daniel Lee, along with another offender, killed a couple and their eight-year-old daughter by duct-taping plastic bags over their heads, weighting them down with rocks and throwing them in a river. Lezmond Mitchell and his accomplice stabbed a woman 33 times and slashed her granddaughter’s throat twice before dropping 20-pound rocks on the nine-year-old’s head. Wesley Purkey murdered an 80-year-old woman and kidnapped, raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl. Alfred Bourgeois tortured and murdered his two-year-old daughter, while meth kingpin Dustin Honken and his girlfriend murdered two federal witnesses, plus the girlfriend and two young daughters of one of the men.
None of these men is sympathetic, few will mourn them, and yet conservatives should avoid their own emotiveness trap. Seventy-seven per cent of Republicans and 73 per cent of white evangelicals support the death penalty. It is almost a touchstone conservative issue, alongside guns, taxes and (ironically) abortion, but the orthodox position is coming under challenge from the right. Instead of familiar arguments about racial and class bias, inadequate legal representation and outdatedness, Republican dissenters view the death penalty as another failed government program.
Richard Viguerie, a founding father of the conservative movement, contends:
‘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. But here the end result is the end of someone’s life. In other words, it’s a government system that kills people.’
Viguerie is far from the only right-wing skeptic. President Trump’s attorney Jay Sekulow, conservative blogger Michelle Malkin and National Review scribe Ramesh Ponnuru all reject execution on right-wing grounds, as do Tucker Carlson, Oliver North, former RNC chairman Michael Steele and Turning Point’s Charlie Kirk.
Hannah Cox of Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty says:
‘A growing number of conservative state lawmakers are driving that trend because they realize that capital punishment goes against their principles of valuing life, fiscal responsibility and limited government, and that the death penalty does nothing to make the public safer.’
Fiscal conservatives are alarmed that, even as fewer death sentences are carried out, the cost of capital punishment continues to rise. A 2011 study of California’s death row — the largest in the country — found that the death sentence regime cost the state $184m more annually than an equivalent life-without-parole system. In Oklahoma, which has conducted the third-highest number of executions since 1976, death sentences cost taxpayers 3.2 times as much as life sentences and capital appeals five-to-six times as much as life appeals. America’s fifth-largest death row, Pennsylvania, has put just three of its inmates to death since 1978, at an astonishing cost of $272m per execution.
Runaway spending has predictably led to excessive bureaucracy and inefficiency but the most wasteful aspect of all is that, however much money is spent on capital punishment, there is little evidence it works. The South and the Midwest, the two regions that carry out the most executions, have the highest murder rates. This leads liberals to claim there is no deterrent effect to capital punishment. However, the Committee on Deterrence and the Death Penalty concluded after a comprehensive literature review that ‘research to date on the effect of capital punishment on homicide is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates’. For abolitionist conservatives, the death penalty should be treated like any other government program that cannot prove its effectiveness.
Where liberal critiques of execution tend to focus on the condemned, new evidence is coming to light about the impact on victims’ families. Capital punishment advocates sometimes justify it as a means of bringing ‘closure’ to these ‘co-victims’. However, a University of Minnesota study found that only 2.5 percent reported experiencing closure as the result of their relative’s killer being put to death. Researchers also learned that co-victims suffered ‘feelings of emptiness’ when execution failed to achieve a restorative effect.
The tension that support for capital punishment brings to a conservative movement heavy with rhetoric about the sanctity of human life has become insupportable for some right-wingers. Conservative objections extend beyond the possibility that innocents will be executed (166 death row inmates have been exonerated since 1973) to questions of inviolability and grace. Sekulow reasons: ‘Who amongst anyone is not above redemption? I think we have to be careful in executing final judgment… I think you are short-cutting the whole process of redemption.’ Anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson asserts: ‘[L]ife always has value. For all who are pro-life, we are called to oppose all threats to life from conception to natural death, including the death penalty.’ A government that has no business directing taxpayers’ money to Planned Parenthood has no business pumping it into lethal injection chambers, the abortion clinics of the criminal justice system.
The first of the five child-killers is scheduled to die on December 9, though each case could end up back in the appeals courts first, adding further cost to a process that cannot be proved to deter similar crimes, has wrongly condemned scores that we know of, and that entrusts the selection and administration of death to an inefficient and dysfunctional bureaucracy. The death penalty is red tape threaded into a noose. Conservatives may defend it on retributivist, desert or communicative grounds, but on conservative grounds it is no longer defensible.