Republicans Should Seek to End the Death Penalty, not Expand It

Yesterday President Donald Trump unveiled a plan to use the death penalty on drug dealers and traffickers; however, rather than consider such a proposal, Republicans should immediately reject it. One of the fundamental tenets of conservatism is the belief that the size and scope of government should be limited, as to restrain it from getting too big, too powerful, and too intrusive. Another principle often associated with the conservative movement is the belief that life is sacred and all life has inherent value. It is therefore especially noteworthy that the conservative movement has not yet unequivocally disavowed any use of the death penalty.


On March 14, the Daily Beast published the story of Carlton Michael Gary, who in 1986 was sentenced to die for rape and murder (and who investigators say was linked to a 1975 New York murder, though no charges were ever filed). Police claim they discovered his fingerprints at three (of seven) victims’ homes, and the sole survivor identified him. However, DNA tests determined semen at the survivor’s home does not belong to Gary; the survivor mistakenly identified another man first; and footprints did not match Gary’s shoe size. Yet Gary was executed on March 15.

Last year, Arkansas executed Ledel Lee, a man with significant intellectual deficits, despite discrepancies between the crime scene and the eye witness’ version of accounts, and forensic evidence did not match Lee.

In 2004, Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham after he was convicted and sentenced for allegedly setting a fire that killed his three daughters. The New Yorker covered his story in 2009, and it is still well worth the time to read it today: Even during his life, there was controversy regarding the arson investigation and evidence used to convict him, and subsequent reports after his execution have since found even more inconsistencies and problems. Willingham maintained his innocence until his death.

One innocent person wrongfully executed is one too many. One person taken off of death row after being exonerated demonstrates the government cannot be trusted with this power. How can the same people who rightfully view the state with suspicion now put faith and trust in the government to get this right every single time, when the stakes are so high? The cost of being wrong is truly unbearable.


Rather than treating all life as precious, the death penalty shows a lack of respect for human life. And, as President Ronald Reagan once said to March for Life participants, If we are to err, shouldn’t it be on the side of life?

We cannot accept the risk of wrongfully executing an innocent person.

The criminal justice system is not flawless and the death penalty is irreversible. Conservatives should not support a system that has the potential to cause even one wrongful death.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 161 people have been released from death row in America since 1973 after evidence showed they were wrongly sentenced.

Studies have concluded more than 4% of people sentenced to death in the U.S. have been wrongfully sentenced.

This is not acceptable. This is a level of error we as a society cannot be willing to accept.

Conservatives should not support a system that not only deprives Americans of their right to life but is also capable of taking away that right in error.

The death penalty is indiscriminate, inconsistent, and unjust.

The use of capital punishment is built and dependent upon absolute trust in our criminal justice system. Unfortunately, it is impossible for our criminal justice system to be completely foolproof. Flawed investigations, incompetent law enforcement, careless lab technicians, missing or overlooked evidence, unintended human error, and the unfortunate aspect of human nature to double down even when obviously wrong can all result in error. It is possible to make reparations for such errors when the sentence is wrongful incarceration, but it is impossible to do so for wrongful executions.


According to a Columbia University study that examined all death sentences between 1973 and 1995, state and federal appellate courts reversed 68% of all death sentences imposed during that period as a result of “serious, reversible error” at the trial level, and death sentences reversed at later stages were most often due to “egregiously incompetent lawyering.”

Furthermore, there are many ways in which the death penalty is applied inconsistently. And people who commit similar crimes can be sentenced differently; some people are sentenced to death while others receive lesser sentences. A person’s fate can be left to circumstances that arbitrary and discriminatory.

Race and human bias also affect the use of capital punishment:

  • 80% of all capital cases involve white victims, although only approximately 50% of all murder victims are white.
  • Multiple studies show that death sentences are more likely for defendants who have killed a white person: Among other research, a 2003 University of Maryland study concluded that defendants who have killed a white person are much more likely to be sentenced to death; the New Jersey Supreme Court in 2001 concluded that the state’s death penalty is more likely to proceed against defendants who kill white victims; and a 2001 University of North Carolina study concluded that the odds of getting a death sentence increased three and a half times if the victim was white rather than black.
  • According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a court motion filed yesterday charges that Columbus prosecutors marked B or N next to black prospective jurors’ names and purposely excluded black jurors in seven death-penalty cases in the 1970s.

Not only does capital punishment permanently deny an individual the chance to benefit from new developments, it is also applied unequally and inconsistently, so it arguably violates the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments regarding cruel and unusual punishment and every citizen’s guarantee of due process of law and of equal protection under our Constitution.

The death penalty system is costly in multiple ways.

It’s not just the moral cost of making an irreversible mistake. Capital punishment costs American taxpayers many millions of dollars, from the initial court case, to the appellate process and other post-conviction litigation, to the execution itself.

Death penalty cases are both more expensive and time-consuming than cases that do not involve the death penalty. Fox News reported in 2010 that a Duke study determined the state spent $2.1 million more on a death penalty case than on one seeking a life sentence, while New Jersey taxpayers paid $253 million more for death penalty trials than they would have paid for trials not seeking execution since 1983 — even though New Jersey had not yet executed an inmate yet.

A study by the Kansas Judicial Council found that a death penalty case was about four times as expensive as a non-death penalty case.

And appeals and other post-conviction litigation, such as habeas corpus proceedings, which in many places are a statutory right for capital defendants, mean the expense of more time and resources.

It’s also more expensive to house death row inmates than other prisoners. In 2010, ACLU director Natasha Minsker pointed out that housing for death row inmates costs California $90,000 more per prisoner per year because of single rooms and extra guards. With over 700 death row inmates, the death penalty ultimately costs California $137 million annually, as opposed to $11.5 million for lifetime incarceration.


Lastly, the injection drugs themselves continue to get more expensive — not only is the use of them the cause of endless litigation, but in states like Virginia, the price jumped from $525 to $16,500 in 2016.

The death penalty does not actually deter crime.

Capital punishment supporters often argue the death penalty is a way to maintain law and order. However, there is no major evidence that capital punishment discourages criminals.

Crime rates continue to fall even as states execute fewer people.

In a national survey on effective ways to reduce crime, police officers ranked the death penalty last. According to the survey, reducing drug abuse and improving the economy were more effective.

Capital punishment is therefore yet another government program that is both expensive and ineffective — while also pertaining to literal life or death situations.

The state exists to protect the rights of its citizens, not kill its own people, and it should not force civilians to kill each other.

Civilians should not be charged with the responsibility of ending life. Participating in state-sponsored murder can weigh heavily on the soul, and normalizing the power to end a life can have a corrupt effect on the public: It encourages a lack of respect for life while advancing and authorizing excessive power of the state.

And no citizen should believe that he or she is invulnerable to or protected from this type of government failure — that is most assuredly the attitude every wrongfully sentenced death row inmate had before the moment they were arrested, convicted, and sentenced. After all, Cameron Todd Willingham simply had the misfortune of escaping a house fire that killed his three children.


There are true monsters out there. But as anti-abortion activist Leszek Syski said, The question of whether or not murderers deserve to die is the wrong one. The real question is whether other humans have a right to kill them.

Conservatives are rightly suspicious of powerful government; the death penalty should be no different.

It is evident that capital punishment can be unjust, expensive, inefficient, unproductive, bureaucratic, and affected by human error and human bias — and therefore cruel and unequal.

It is a tragedy and an outrage that the state is given the power to kill its own citizens and to make such costly mistakes.

Though this piece has mostly focused on the use of capital punishment in general, it is also extremely disproportionate to execute someone for drug distribution, when there is no deliberate intent to cause a death. Furthermore, it is extremely likely that the state would misuse this new authorization of power.

Conservatives, and the party of small limited government and personal responsibility, should be seeking to eliminate capital punishment altogether — not expanding its use to encompass drug dealers.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent those of any other individual or entity. Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sarahmquinlan.



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