With a Georgia lawmaker leading the way, a coalition of conservatives against the death penalty began to make waves last week.
Georgia Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty formally announced its formation on Jan. 19. Made up of Republican lawmakers, a college student and nonprofit leaders, the group is quite diverse, but its mission is simple: To educate people on capital punishment and eradicate it.
“I am skeptical of our government’s ability to implement efficient and effective programs, and so a healthy skepticism of our state’s death penalty is warranted, “ state Rep. Brett Harrell (R) said in a statement. “Many individuals have been wrongly convicted and sentenced to die. Meanwhile, taxpayers are forced to pay for this risky government program, even though it costs more than life without parole.”
Marc Hyden, the national coordinator of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty told TheBlaze that the first step would be for the state legislature to “re-evaluate” the death penalty and “have a candid discussion about [it], educate themselves, find out what it does in practice rather than in theory.”
“Right now it would be imprudent to bring a repeal bill,” he said. “Once there’s this education process, then we can move on to the next step.”
But while his organization fights to get Georgia lawmakers to re-examine the policy, the fight among conservatives regarding the issue wages on. And the number of Americans in favor of capital punishment is dwindling.
A September Pew Research poll found that only about 49 percent of Americans favor the death penalty for someone who was convicted of murder — the lowest that number has been in more than four decades. Republicans, the poll found, still greatly favor the practice more than Democrats, 72 percent to 34 percent respectively.
The number of Republicans who favor the death penalty has declined since 20 years ago when 87 percent viewed the practice positively. However, it's the Democrats who have greatly lost support for the death penalty over the years as 71 percent supported it 20 years ago, the poll found.
For Hyden, there are multiple reasons why conservatives should be in ardent opposition to the death penalty — chief among them, fiscal responsibility and a true pro-life mentality.
As anti-abortion people refer to themselves pro-life, Hyden argued that protecting an “innocent child” should extend outside the womb as innocent people can be wrongly convicted and end up on death row.
“If you want to be able to execute the worst of the worst, the most heinous of killers, then you have to have a government program in place, and the breadth of that program means that accidents will happen and innocent people will fall through the cracks,” Hyden said. “It’s a matter of collateral damage. And a person who is pro-life should safeguard innocent life.”
“How many innocent people are you willing to kill in order to kill some of the most heinous killers? That’s a tough question to answer, and I’m not comfortable with executing any innocent people,” he added.
Searching through inmate records, the Death Penalty Information Center has compiled a list of 157 people who were exonerated from death row over the years. In order to be exonerated, the nonprofit explains, one must have been acquitted by their governor due to new evidence, had all charges dropped or were acquitted at a re-trial.
Hyden pointed right to the Peach State as an example of how capital punishment can lead to the execution of innocent people. Six people have been exonerated from death row since 1973, according to DPIC.
“And if you look at who we’re executing, it’s not the worst of the worst, it’s not the most heinous,” Hyden said, pointing to the executions of a woman who became a Christian while in prison and counseled her fellow inmates, a veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and a man with a low IQ.
However, according to Andrew Walker, director of policy studies with the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the case could be that true pro-life folks should support the death penalty,
“I don’t think that because you’re pro-life that automatically means you’re against the death penalty. You can use the pro-life moniker to argue for it in the sense of, ‘Listen, I think life is so valuable that I want to preserve it in such a way that the way to deter innocent lives is to say that if you take a life, your own will be taken,’” Walker told TheBlaze in an interview. “So to me, there’s an inherent pro-life end to the death penalty.”
Walker added that anti-abortion people who are also anti-death penalty are “not [his] enemy at all.”
“If you’re pro-life, we’re on the same team,” he said.
Except when it comes to capital punishment.
“The difference here is culpability,” Walker said of the argument that pro-life people should be against the government putting someone to death. “For me, someone who is a violent serial offender, murder in the first degree, premeditated, that person is on a completely different moral horizon than the unborn innocent child. Apples and oranges.”
Walker agreed with Hyden that “there are disparities in the application and use of the death penalty in America,” including racial and income disparities.
“I think that’s an important discussion to have, but I think that is connected but not necessarily foundational to the bigger question of the moral principle, the justice behind it,” Walker said.
And from a Christian perspective, Walker made the case that support for capital punishment can be drawn all the way back to the early church:
That’s basically been rooted in this understanding of man being made in the image of God. The classic passage comes in Genesis … ‘if you shed man’s blood then by man’s blood you shall be shed.’ The principle that a lot of Christian ethicists have drawn from that is God places such significance on the nature of man’s personhood because they’re made in the image of God that one of the ways we affirm and esteem the gravity of man being made in God’s image is the fact that if you kill one of his image-bearers, the gravity of that action is met by an equally grave action which is the penalty and forfeiture of your own life.
That’s been one of the traditional Christian understandings, that only because man is so endowed with innate dignity and worth that that’s what makes the death penalty necessary because we want to signify how important and worthy life really is. We do that by saying that if you kill someone, that’s such a grave action that it’s met with this consequence of the death penalty.
“I would say that the majority of evangelicals are in favor of the death penalty. But the conservatives who are against the death penalty, I will grant them that there is more of a question around the death penalty than there was probably a generation ago,” Walker added. “I think the death penalty has been a facet of the American justice system, and it never really had an overt conflict with how evangelicals read their Bible. And to me, it’s still not an inherent conflict.”
But as support for the death penalty wanes, Hyden and Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty point to other states as they prepare to take the fight to Georgia.
[graphiq id="5xkC0TP4xmt" title="Death Penalty Laws by State" width="600" height="610" url="https://w.graphiq.com/w/5xkC0TP4xmt" ]
But while the death penalty still exists in those states — and in Georgia — Hyden cited their progress as a sign of hope.
"Some of these are very conservative states and they want to oppose it for very good, very conservative reasons," he said. "I don’t know how [Georgia's legislative] session will go, but if it’s anything like other states, we’re going to find a lot of people who really just don’t trust the government that much and they don’t want to waste any more taxpayer funds."
According to DPIC, 31 states currently have the death penalty in place.