Are conservatives starting to turn against the death penalty? It certainly appears that may be the case.
Last week, former congressman Ron Paul wrote a letter to Texas Gov. Rick Perry urging clemency for Scott Panetti, a schizophrenic man who killed his wife’s parents in 1992. Paul, a vocal libertarian who campaigned in the 2012 Republican primary, said he used to support the death penalty but no longer does. Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, has also supported Panetti’s clemency, as have many other politicians and attorneys. Several prominent evangelicals have echoed these sentiments.
Panetti was convicted in 1995, despite pleading not guilty by reason of insanity (during his trial, he dressed as a cowboy and attempted to subpoena Jesus Christ, according to the New York Times). Allegedly, Panetti believes his execution is a consequence of spiritual warfare. The legal challenges to his competency to be executed made it all the way to the Supreme Court in Panetti v. Quarterman.
But over 20 years after the crime was committed, Panetti’s execution date is just around the corner.
The debate over Panetti may be indicative of a larger shift in American politics. Whereas Republicans used to be known for being “tough on crime,” these policies have rarely (if at all) been campaign issues in recent years. A 2014 Gallup poll shows that support for the death penalty among Republicans is 76 percent, 5 percentage points lower than last year. This is the second-lowest point for death penalty support among Republicans since 1988 (the lowest point was 73 percent in 2011).
One organization, Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, has dedicated their efforts to convincing conservatives that the death penalty is inconsistent with their principles for moral and financial reasons. One argument that resonates particularly with fiscal conservatives is that the legal cost of death penalty cases can reach into the millions, far more than the cost of life imprisonment. “I have traveled across the country talking to thousands of conservatives over the last year,” said Marc Hyden, National Coordinator of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. “Many of them have changed their views and many more are voicing strong concerns, and the conservative media is now routinely covering the conservative case against the death penalty.”
The organization’s website also lists quotes from prominent conservative columnists, politicians, and activists describing why they oppose the death penalty. “The death penalty runs a dangerously high risk of killing innocent people, siphons billions of dollars from the public, and gives the government power it cannot be trusted to carry out fairly,” said Drew Johnson, a senior scholar at the Taxpayers Protection Alliance and frequent conservative columnist at The Washington Times.
It’s a pretty clear argument that may be starting to gain traction among conservatives.