I grew up in a Conservative home, in a Conservative church, with nearly all Conservative friends. Support for the death penalty was not so much a political position as a rite of passage. To say death penalty support went unquestioned understates reality. There was no alternative position to consider, much less hold. Among the people I knew there was little question of its use or effectiveness.
In recent years my own ardent support for the death penalty has run aground on the shoals of justice. How can I righteously support a supposed instrument of justice when wielded so unjustly? The same God who handed the sword to Caesar calls Caesar to a much greater accounting. When Caesar sits in the seat of justice, he should not use the citizenry for a footstool. When Caesar is corrupt, followers of Jesus should be at the forefront of calling Caesar to account.
In our current American context the evidence of systemic injustice–from the creation of laws to sentencing for crime and every level in between–is overwhelming. Anyone who seeks justice must take a long hard look at the death penalty.
I am not opposed to the death penalty in theory or theology, but I am opposed to its practice in the American context. Having seen what most human governments have to offer, I will probably oppose it in any context. I no longer see it as a consistent means of delivering justice.
The question is: “Can Conservatives oppose the death penalty for reasons that do not conflict with Conservative theology or politics?”
I asked my friend Justin Phillips of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty for a few reasons it makes sense for people like me, who don’t oppose the death penalty philosophically, to oppose it anyway.
Last month, Nebraska repealed the death penalty, becoming the 19th state in the U.S. to do so. This alone is not news as seven states have abolished the death penalty in the last eight years. However, Nebraska is the first solidly conservative state to abolish capital punishment in over forty years. An increasingly common coalition of fiscal conservatives, along with Catholics and evangelicals, led the way in Nebraska and is changing the debate nation-wide. Here is an overview of their argument:
- Capital punishment is a costly, wasteful government program
A system that utilizes capital punishment is far more expensive than one that utilizes life without parole (LWOP) as its maximum sentence. Cost studies in states like Maryland, Kansas, North Carolina, Florida, etc, have revealed capital cases cost taxpayers millions more than cases where the death penalty is not sought. Seventy percent of a capital case’s expense comes in the initial trial phase, not in the constitutionally mandated appeals process. For example, the high-profile trial of James Holmes – the Aurora (CO) movie theater shooter – had already exceeded $5 million dollars in pre-trial expenses by February 2015. In short, the financial burden of pursuing capital trials, particularly for small or rural counties, has persuaded some district attorneys to consider alternative sentences.
- Capital punishment is unfairly and arbitrarily applied
Economic bias plays a role in the justice system. For example, in Tennessee, approximately 85% of death row inmates could not afford their own defense attorney. Race also plays a role in sentencing: In Tennessee, defendants with white victims were three times more likely to receive a death sentence than those with victims of color. The implied message being that some lives are worth more than others. Lastly, where you live can often determine whether you receive a death sentence or not. The vast majority of cases that lead to executions come from only 2% of the nation’s counties, with many counties having never sought the death penalty.
- Capital punishment risks executing innocent people
Since 1973, 154 death row inmates have been exonerated (four in 2015) and freed when evidence of their innocence emerged. These exonerees often spend decades in prison before being freed. While some might believe that DNA testing remedies all errors, likely due to the influence of TV shows such as CSI, sadly, DNA evidence has been available in less than 15 % of exoneration cases. Additionally, increased suspicion of forensic use has arisen due to recent flawed testimony.
- Capital punishment is not limited government
Conservatives hold to a notion of limited government for a variety of reasons, one of which has theological roots: An error-prone government is simply evidence that all creation, individuals and institutions included, is tainted by the Fall and giving government the power to decide who lives and dies is not “limited” in any sense of the word. When state governments go to such great lengths to hide their lethal injection drug sources from the public through secrecy laws, then citizens have lost control.
Catholics and evangelicals, some of whom are also conservatives, cite a consistent ethic of life that informs their universal opposition to abortion, physician-assisted suicide, and capital punishment. The moral status of the life – unborn, aging, or convicted criminal – does not matter. Life remains a gift from God. Furthermore, God can use whomever God chooses for his divine purposes even convicted murderers, such as Kelly Gissendaner. Who are we to say when God has finished his work with an individual?
- The current system does not serve murder victims’ family members
Justice should be swift and sure, yet the current system is neither and drags victims’ families through a lengthy process (an average of 22 years in Tennessee) that offers the promise of an execution but often results in a different sentence. Of course, any attempt to speed up the process risks executing the innocent. Alternative sentences to the death penalty give victims’ families legal finality outside of the media spotlight. Additionally, some states have chosen to allocate funds previously spent on the death penalty for victims’ compensation and services.
- Capital punishment does not make the public safer
A 2008 poll by the Death Penalty Information Center surveyed 500 U.S. police chiefs and found that when asked to name one area as “most important for reducing violent crime,” greater use of the death penalty ranked last among several options. They ranked expanded training for police officers, community policing, treatment programs for drug and alcohol abuse, and neighborhood watch programs as more cost-effective ways to use taxpayers’ money.
Those who have long held as have I a theological underpinning for capital punishment support should consider these objections. If the biblical purpose of capital punishment is a view of Divine justice, we should question whether the death penalty accomplishes this goal. Scripture affirms Caesar “does not bear the sword in vain.” It does not indicate Caesar must use a sword if equally just options are at his disposal.
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