His torso had deep lacerations, his arteries, organs, and skin cut and sliced, his body was badly burned and riddled with shrapnel, and his spine was nearly severed. This is how the medical examiner who testified in the sentencing trial for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev described the autopsy results for the youngest victim of the Boston Marathon bombings, 8-year-old Martin Richards. Lingzi Lu and Krystle Campbell suffered similar fates that day, he explained; and more than 160 others were badly maimed.
The gruesome details from the Boston Marathon bombing were meant to drive one point home to the jurors: He deserves to die for what he did.
Tsarnaev is “America’s worst nightmare,” the prosecutor would go on to say, and an unrepentant one at that. Moreover, no doubt remains over whether or not he’s guilty.
On an emotional level, many would agree with the prosecution in the Tsarnaev case and for perpetrators of other heinous crimes, especially when the case evidence is as clear as this. But as a policy, should conservatives support the death penalty?
If we believe in limited government, fiscal responsibility and pro-life policies unilaterally, it’s time to give capital punishment a second thought. And on a state-by-state basis, Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, a national “network of political and social conservatives who question the alignment of capital punishment with conservative principle and values,” is leading the charge.
While capital punishment may seem like the most fiscally prudent form of justice for state, local, and the federal government, the reality is that the cost to taxpayers is much higher than a sentence where the death penalty is not sought. In Washington, for example, capital punishment cases cost on average $1 million more than similar cases where it was not sought, a Seattle University study found—a trend that’s seen nationwide.
"It’s the fiscal aspect of the death penalty that presents one of the strongest cases against capital punishment," Marc Hyden, national advocacy coordinator for CCATD, told Townhall.
“I can point to Richardson County, Nebraska, [where] they tried to execute two people and when they ran out money they decided to mortgage all their ambulances,” he explained.
“I know in Lincoln County, Georgia, they ran out of money, they raised taxes multiple times and eventually the county commissioner said ‘we’re not paying any more on this death penalty program’ and the judge said ‘you can’t renege on your debts’ and they threw the whole county commission in jail until they approved appropriations,” he continued. “It’s causing tax increases, it’s millions of more dollars per case than life without parole, that’s really what made me start to question the death penalty and whether or not it represents conservative principles.”
Could the cost be justified if it served as a major deterrent? Perhaps, but the truth is it doesn’t.
A 2009 study published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology found that 81 percent of the nation’s top criminologists do not believe capital punishment serves as a deterrent to murder. Moreover, as a Forbes article notes, “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).”
Is a policy that has exorbitant costs, producing dubious returns really one worth fighting for?
Big Government At Its Worst
Being in favor of limited government is one of the hallmarks of conservatism, yet capital punishment represents Big Government at its worst.
Since 1973, there have been 152 exonerations from death row, the most recent of which was just last month.
And many others on death row, Hyden noted, have been executed when there’s been serious doubt regarding the veracity of their verdict.
“There’s a compelling case out there that perhaps some people may deserve to die for some of their crimes but it’s whether you trust the government to exercise the authority involved in capital punishment fairly and efficiently with proper efficacy,” he said. “This is the same government that many don’t trust to shovel snow, fill potholes, or create a website for Obamacare.”
By giving the government this much power, how much collateral damage are we willing to accept?
The answer for many pro-lifers is zero.
A Consistent Pro-Life Stance
“I don’t think there’s anything more important than life,” Hyden expressed, “so for a lot of my fellow conservatives that are also prolife, this is a big issue, we don’t want to see innocent U.S. citizens being killed by the state, we know there’s a risk because humans and governments are fallible, so when you give them the power to kill people, guilty people, inevitably innocent people will fall through the cracks.”
And from a religious perspective, more and more Evangelicals are beginning to realize supporting the death penalty is incongruent with their religious beliefs, CCATDP national advocacy coordinator Heather Beaudoin, whose outreach background includes working with Evangelicals and law enforcement, told Townhall.
“I think 10 years ago it would’ve been hard to find a group of Evangelical folks who were against the death penalty … but we are seeing a real shift in that now,” she said. “What resonates with them is redemption—that if we believe that God can transform any person and that he is created in God’s image, we can’t support a system that takes away life, even from a person that commits a terrible crime.”
Concern for Victims’ Families
All these reasons aside, debates about the death penalty must also include thoughtful consideration for the families of the victims, who, like Bill and Denise Richards, do not wish to relive the horrific events of the day their son was murdered and daughter maimed.
In an op-ed published in The Boston Globe, the Richards’ explain why they are in favor of the government taking the death penalty off the table for Tsarnaev in exchange for life in prison without parole.
“We understand all too well the heinousness and brutality of the crimes committed. We were there. We lived it,” they wrote. “The defendant murdered our 8-year-old son, maimed our 7-year-old daughter, and stole part of our soul. We know that the government has its reasons for seeking the death penalty, but the continued pursuit of that punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives. We hope our two remaining children do not have to grow up with the lingering, painful reminder of what the defendant took from them, which years of appeals would undoubtedly bring.”
Is the Time Ripe?
There’s no denying an overwhelming percentage of Republicans still favor the death penalty. That does not mean, however, that attitudes aren’t shifting. According to Gallup’s most recent survey on the issue, 76 percent of Republicans favor the practice for convicted murderers. But compared to when polling firm asked the same question 20 years ago, Republican support is down 9 points.
What’s happening in Nebraska, where Republican lawmakers are pushing to end the death penalty, is also a good indication support for the broken government program may be waning. If the death penalty is repealed in The Cornhusker State, it would become the first “red” state in more than 40 years to do so.
“If any other system in our government was as ineffective and inefficient as is our death penalty, we conservatives would have gotten rid of it a long, long time ago,” said Sen. Colby Coash, a Republican from Lincoln, reports The Wall Street Journal.
While Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts has vowed to veto the measure, the effort led by Republicans signals change, across America, may be coming.
“We have a lot of conservatives in our camp who still do believe that [if you kill someone you should forfeit your life], they believe it in principle, they believe the philosophy behind the death penalty,” Beaudoin explained, “however, they’ve been willing to take a look and they agree that it’s just not worth it anymore, so I think when you look at the system and the way it’s functioning I think you come to a different conclusion.”