Should Conservatives Oppose the Death Penalty?

Posted: Aug 06, 2014 8:34 AM

In the August issue of Townhall Magazine, where this article originally appeared, Townhall editors Christine Rousselle and Amanda Muñoz debate whether or not the United States should keep using the death penalty.

The debate over capital punishment began a new chapter after the “botched” execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma. Lockett, who was sentenced to death for shooting 19-year-old Stephanie Nieman and burying her alive, took much longer to die and experienced far more physical pain than a typical execution.

A person can be sentenced to death for committing one of 41 crimes. Of these 41 crimes, all but two (espionage and treason) involve taking the life of another human being. Currently, 32 states, the federal government, and the U.S. military allow a criminal to be sentenced to death, while 18 states have banned the practice.

The Supreme Court has gradually chipped away at conditions of when a person can be executed. In recent years, the court has ruled that persons under the age of 18, those with lower I.Q. scores, and those convicted of crimes that did not result in the death of the victim (apart from the aforementioned espionage and treason) cannot be executed.


The death penalty should remain an option, as it is the unfortunate reality that some crimes are so terrible that death is the only suitable punishment.

The death penalty is never the default punishment for any offense. In order to seek the death penalty against a defendant, the crime they are accused of must meet one of several “aggravating factors.” These typically include murder that involves torture, or is committed against children or the elderly, or involves the death of more than one person. The death penalty is only used to punish the most brutal and horrific crimes.

Yes, humans are by default fallible, and there is always a chance that someone who is not guilty could be convicted of a crime and sentenced to death. Any decision made by a human may be the wrong one. With modern technology, however, guilt is often established without almost any question of doubt.


While anti-death penalty activists claim that current execution techniques may not be “humane,” the alternative system of “prison justice” may be far worse than anything officially administered by the state.

Violent criminals do not cease being violent criminals simply because they now reside inside the walls of a prison. Those convicted of crimes against children, for instance, generally do not fare well in prison, and there have been numerous instances where notorious pedophiles or sex offenders have been brutally murdered by fellow inmates.

An example of “prison justice” carrying out the execution duties of a state is the murder of Jeffrey Dahmer, a convicted serial killer, rapist, and cannibal. Dahmer was beaten to death with a metal bar while on prison work detail and left to die in a pool of his own blood.

Despite confessing to 17 murders, being found with four severed heads in his apartment, and possessing numerous pictures of his dismembered victims, Dahmer wasn’t eligible for the death penalty as Wisconsin had abolished the practice in 1853. Instead, he was sentenced to several consecutive life sentences and eventually was placed into Columbia Correctional Institute’s general population, where other prisoners reportedly immediately began planning Dahmer’s eventual death.

It is fairly obvious that the state of Wisconsin knew what would happen to Dahmer if he were placed in the general population of a prison. As the state was unable to do an officially sanctioned execution for a terrible criminal, a backdoor technique of prison justice was employed, resulting in a far more reprehensible manner of death. The end result was the same as what would occur under a “typical” execution: a confessed, convicted murderer is now dead. Instead of a relatively quick and painless execution, however, a man was beaten for several minutes and took more than an hour to die. Is this really preferable?


Deterring future criminals from committing crimes is not the goal of the modern penal system. This isn’t “Pirates of the Caribbean.” The bodies of those executed are not hung under signs warning people not to commit murder or acts of treason. The bodies of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, for instance, were not paraded around New York City as a warning to any wannabe Soviet agents to please refrain from betraying the United States’ military secrets to enemy powers.

John C. McAdams, a professor of political science at Marquette University, has noted that there’s no real way to quantify any “deterrent” effect. “If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call.”

A Bureau of Justice Statistics study of 30 states over a five-year period from 2005 to 2010 showed that more than 70 percent of violent offenders were arrested again within five years of release. Granted, not all of these arrests were for an additional violent crime, but it is clear that either the American prison system is doing a horrible job of teaching criminals a lesson, or that criminals are simply criminals by nature. As harsh as it may sound, the line of thinking that suggests prison should be rehabilitative in nature may be sadly misguided.


The view that a person who is “pro- life” on other issues (such as abortion and euthanasia) must also be against the death penalty or otherwise be a hypocrite is the “height of arrogance,” Fr. Thomas Petri, vice president and academic dean at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies, tells Townhall, adding that society has a duty to punish criminals who cannot respect human life.

“The difference between abortion and capital punishment seems to me very clear: it’s the difference between innocence and guilt. In fact, one can just as easily question a society’s commitment to the protection of life were it not ready to punish with death those who treat innocent life cavalierly, heinously, and viciously,” Petri explains.

Perhaps the European Union provides a better example of “hypocrisy” on the issue of life. The EU has outlawed the export of chemicals for use in executions, but has no issue with those same chemicals being used for the practice of euthanasia in its member states, including the Netherlands, where disabled newborns are regularly euthanized. Either something is a humane way to kill someone, or it is not a humane way to kill someone: the circumstances should not matter.


Situations like Lockett’s execution should certainly be avoided if at all possible, and many states are taking steps to ensure that their condemned face a swift, painless death. Both Utah and Tennessee have considered returning to alternative forms of execution when faced with a shortage of acceptable drugs: the electric chair. Oklahoma is also considering a return to the firing squad as an option for execution.

It is quite sad that people still commit crimes so depraved that they merit a death sentence. However, until the day comes where crime effectively stops, the death penalty must remain an option to punish those who have shown no respect for human life.


The United States is the only Western nation that still retains the use of the death penalty. Europe rid itself of capital punishment in the early 1980s, and the U.S. is now fifth in the world for the greatest number of death penalty executions after China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.

That company alone should be enough to spark some reconsideration of U.S. commitment to the practice.

But as a country used to taking matters into its own hands, it comes as no surprise that most conservatives are proponents of capital punishment. According to a recent Gallup poll, 61 percent of all Americans find the death penalty to be morally acceptable. However, it is past time for conservatives to rethink the issue.


All conservatives share a deep and fundamental distrust of Big Government and its ability to effectively and efficiently carry out even the most menial tasks. Thus, it seems counterintuitive that many on the Right not only expect both state and federal governments to carry out such an irreversible act, but trust that the systems in place are capable of enacting this form of justice without a hitch.

Because government is man’s construct, imperfection is inherent. Mistakes will happen. But in this case, a mistake can mean the difference between life and death for an innocent person.

According to the non-partisan Death Penalty Information Center, 144 people have been exonerated from death row since 1970. One hundred and forty-four people were proven innocent after conviction and all guilt was released from those specific cases. One hundred and forty-four people could have been wrongfully put to death.

If we can’t even trust the government to legally collect tax revenue, how can society be so willing to give it the power to end human life?


While conservatives irk at government programs that typically go hand-in-hand with fiscal irresponsibility, most don’t seem to mind that carrying out the death penalty costs the feds and states billions of dollars for an ineffective criminal deterrent.

Numerous studies have found that the cost of obtaining a death penalty sentence at trial is $1 million more, on average, than the cost of winning a life without parole sentence.

And not only do lengthy appellate proceedings eat up millions of taxpayer dollars, but the incarceration costs for death row inmates also dramatically exceed incarceration costs at maximum security prisons for inmates sentenced to life without parole.

A 2012 study published in the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review found that California, the state with the largest death row population, spent $4 billion more since 1978 than it otherwise would have if it had a system where life in prison without the possibility of parole was the most severe penalty. It also found that should the state maintain its current system, it would spend $5-7 billion more than a life-without-possibility-of-parole system by 2050, with more than 500 death row inmates dying of old age or other causes before being executed by the state.

And the exorbitant cost is coming with little return.

Forbes reported that “states which impose the death penalty continue to report the highest murder rates in the country with only three states without the death penalty ranked in the top twenty five (Michigan, New York and Alaska).”

Back in May, Townhall columnist S.E. Cupp put it bluntly when she made this comparison:

“In the absence of any evidence that proves the death penalty reduces crime, we should continue asking serious questions about our commitment to it. And might I remind fellow conservatives that we are quick to point out that there’s no evidence gun control reduces gun crime; we should apply the same level of scrutiny here.”

She also quoted former U.S. Court of Appeals Judge H. Lee Sarokin, who said in 2011 that “Persons contemplating murder do not sit around the kitchen table and say I won’t commit this murder if I face the death penalty, but I will do it if the penalty is life without parole.”

Sticking to an empirically broken, inefficient government-run program to extract some sense of social justice, regardless of cost, very much resembles that of a liberal agenda.


For religious conservatives, supporting the death penalty comes at a stark contrast to the pro-life creed.

Religious leaders around the world have mixed opinions on the morality of capital punishment. While Pope John Paul II found that executing criminals was morally acceptable when society had no other choice to defend innocent lives, he did question modern society’s continued need for implementation.

As the leading world power, shouldn’t the United States be able to develop a criminal justice system that effectively protects communities cost-efficiently but also in a sound moral manner? With the pro-life movement steadily growing across the country, shouldn’t its advocates be consistent with their message on the sanctity of all life?

Obviously, we are very capable of creating alternatives. So the question remains, do we want to? And if we don’t, is it the idea of retribution that motivates the status quo? Morally, we can impose punishment, but we can’t morally justify an act based purely out of revenge. If there are other possibilities, as God-fearing citizens shouldn’t we feel obligated to invoke a different system?

Today, “an eye for an eye” has lost its moral ground. A heinous murder is not made right by a killer’s quick and painless euthanasia. It’s an easy way out.

There are alternatives that allow for protection from those incapable of living in a civil society, while still leaving room for what we believe will be the ultimate judgment.

All life is sacred, and we don’t get to play God. The minute we unnecessarily justify taking life will be the minute we risk losing credibility as a nation that values morals and faith above all else.


Realizing that support for the practice doesn’t necessarily align with conservative ideology, a growing minority of those on the Right are beginning to re-think their position on capital punishment.

Groups like Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty have been created as networks for conservatives across the country to debate and question the continued use of capital punishment. Richard Viguerie, one of organization’s founding members is quoted as saying: “this trend is not limited to bleeding-heart liberals and crime coddlers.”

And these groups are not some obscure collection of Republicans in name only. The websites for both the CCATDP and the Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty list quotes from active members of the conservative community, such as: Bill O’Reilly, George Will, Kenneth Starr, and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who have all questioned their support for capital punishment.

It’s not that abolishing the death penalty would make us a society that’s soft on crime. It’s understanding that there are other alternatives through which we could more efficiently, and perhaps more effectively, protect ourselves from dangerous individuals in ways that are consistent with our guiding moral principles.


Should repealing the death penalty across the country become conservatives’ No. 1 rallying issue? No. In fact, if it did, it’s likely that Washington politics would find a way to stop any sort of meaningful change right in its tracks.

Our society has undeniably entered an age where developing smarter, more efficient, and ethically sound alternatives within the criminal justice system is possible. And for every moral and economic reason we champion life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, conservatives should take a leading role in questioning our nation’s allegiance to the establishment of capital punishment. •

Amanda Muñoz is an associate editor at

Christine Rousselle is a web editor at