Are Republicans Changing Their Tune on the Death Penalty?

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Are the days of capital punishment coming to an end? It seems attitudes towards the death penalty, especially among conservatives, are changing. While capital punishment has enjoyed overwhelming support from the right over the past few decades, many are rethinking their opinions on the practice.

There seems to be a growing trend among Republican state lawmakers to abolish capital punishment. The Washington Examiner reported:

Eight states have had Republican-sponsored bills to repeal the death penalty introduced during their current legislative sessions, according to the group Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty: Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Washington state.

Demetrius Minor, national manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, told the news outlet that GOP officials pushing these bills are “making a strong statement about the failures of the death penalty.”

“Their actions continue the trend of GOP state legislators moving away from capital punishment,” he said. “They know that the death penalty does not align with their conservative principles of valuing limited government, fiscal conservatism, and life.”

In Utah, state Rep. V. Lowry Snow and state Sen. Daniel McCay introduced a proposal to abolish the state’s death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment. This week, it advanced out of the Rules Committee. McCay told Deseret News why he believes capital punishment is not a desirable method of punishment.

“It sets a false expectation for society, sets a false expectation for the victims and their families,” he said, “and increases the cost to the state of Utah and for states that still have capital punishment.”

McCay also indicated that he believes folks like him on the right can persuade more Republicans to support the end of the practice. “The more we can get our colleagues to critically think about the issue, the more people we have supporting us on the cause,” he explained.

The same is happening in Ohio. State Sen. Stephen Huffman and state Rep. Jean Schmidt recently had a change of heart on the death penalty, noting that it does not jibe with their “pro-life views.”

From the Examiner:

The shift among state Republican lawmakers seems to correspond with a shift in voters’ perspectives on the matter as well. According to Gallup surveys, support for the death penalty was at 54% last year, a decline of 26 percentage points from 1994, when the survey recorded its all-time high of 80%. Although the recent surveys still found stark differences on partisan lines, and a majority of Republicans said they support the practice, support among Republicans did drop 5 percentage points in 2021 from the previous year. Gallup also found that those who identified as “conservative” rather than “Republican” were less likely to support capital punishment.

Last year, Rep. Peter Meijer (R-MI) joined with Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) to introduce a bill that would repeal the federal death penalty. He issued a press release in May explaining that he wished to do away with capital punishment because he does not “trust the government to never execute an innocent person.”

He also suggested that “the death penalty is a poor use of taxpayer dollars; the process of execution is more costly than life without parole,” and that people “who commit violent crimes should live out their natural lives with the consequences of their actions.”

The bill is currently stalled in Congress. But it will only be a matter of time before it is taken up again.

Currently, 27 states still have the death penalty. Over the past decade, several have abolished capital punishment with the help of Republican lawmakers. The Examiner reported:

In some of the states that have recently repealed the practice, Republican lawmakers had some involvement in passing the repeals, with a handful of Republicans in state legislatures in Virginia and Colorado voting in favor of ending the practice. In 2019, the New Hampshire Legislature voted to override Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s veto of a death penalty repeal, including 40% of the Republican Senate caucus. New Hampshire’s repeal was not retroactive, and one person remains on death row in the Granite State, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

It is not too surprising that attitudes towards capital punishment on the right have changed. Indeed, many conservatives are also reversing course on the practice. The impetus behind the change of heart is different for each individual.

For my part, I changed my mind on the death penalty primarily because I cannot reconcile the inevitability that an imperfect justice system will execute innocent people. On their website, Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty revealed:

Since 1973, at least 185 people have been freed from death row after evidence of innocence revealed that they had been wrongfully convicted. That’s almost one person exonerated for every ten who’ve been executed. Wrongful convictions rob innocent people of decades of their lives, waste tax dollars, and re-traumatize the victim’s family, while the people responsible remain unaccountable.

If this many death row inmates have been found innocent, how many more have lost their lives unjustly? Unlike life imprisonment, capital punishment is a final solution that cannot be reversed, and I am not too fond of the idea of trusting the government to make such a decision. Juries can be flawed. Prosecutors can be corrupt. There are simply far too many ways for an innocent person to be put to death for a crime they did not commit.

The bottom line is that if one is going to support the death penalty, they have to be willing to accept that the state will kill innocent people who are not guilty of the crime for which they are being punished. This doesn’t mean a capital punishment supporter likes that innocent people are losing their lives; rather, it just means that is a consequence they are willing to accept, as long as it also means truly guilty people will also be executed.

Being pro-life, I simply cannot accept such an eventuality. If someone is unjustly given a life sentence, at least that person can be released after new evidence emerges. They can also seek relief from the courts. It is not an optimal scenario, but at least the person can live out the rest of their lives. I believe this is probably the main reason why so many conservatives are turning against capital punishment. It will take more time, but if this trend persists, the U.S. might not have a death penalty in a couple more decades.


Trending on RedState Videos