The Conservative Case Against the Death Penalty

I’ve always been opposed to capital punishment, and for the most conservative of reasons:  I don’t believe government should have the authority to take human life, at least not in a society, such as ours, that has the resources to build prisons.

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This is a fundamentally conservative position because it rests upon the assumption that government is, by definition, incompetent and often malicious.

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Do we really want the same type of semi-literate, unionized sludges who run, say, the U.S. Postal Service or the Department of Motor Vehicles, having the power to execute people?  I don’t think so.

It’s not surprising that many liberals and Democrats support capital punishment (although many also oppose it).  (Yes, Virginia, Obama and Clinton are both supporters of capital punishment:  Obama led an effort in Illinois to restore the death penalty when numerous exonerations persuaded the Republican governor, George Ryan, to halt all executions and commute the sentences of everyone awaiting execution, giving most of them life in prison.)

Liberals and Democrats believe in government.  The more government, the better.  They teach the opposite of what Thomas Jefferson and Thoreau taught:  That government is best which governs most! But what does surprise me is that so many alleged conservatives also support capital punishment, although that is changing.  Ann Coulter, for example, who I often find hilarious and agree with at least 50 percent of the time, recently wrote a column defending the death penalty. “Fifty-nine percent of Americans now believe that an innocent man has been executed in the last five years,” Ann writes disapprovingly. “There is more credible evidence that space aliens have walked among us than that an innocent person has been executed in this country in the past 60 years, much less the past five years.”

But then again, Ann Coulter is herself a legal parasite by training.  Despite their veneer of cynicism, lawyers (even conservative ones) have a deep and abiding faith in government, at least in the court system.  How could they not?  Many of them are paid by the government!  They trust that since the court system is run by people who went to law school, it must be exempt from the mind-numbing imbecility and laziness that plagues every other form of government.

But anyone who has spent more than ten minutes in a court room soon discovers that the criminal justice system is riddled with incompetence and corruption.  It’s just the DMV with wood paneling.  It lets obvious murderers like O.J. Simpson go  free and sentences to death mentally retarded but innocent people like Earl Washington (convicted of rape and murder in 1981 but exonerated by DNA evidence in 2000).   Self-important prosecutors regularly pursue cases against innocent people, or ignore crucial exculpatory evidence,  just to make a name for themselves or because they are running for yet another overpaid, triple-pension government job.  Judges do their best, but they are overwhelmed with cases and must rely upon lying cops, ambitious prosecutors, scheming ambulance-chasing defense lawyers and, let’s be honest, criminals.  In short:  The court system is a hell hole.  Anyone caught up in it is living a nightmare.  Federal sentencing guidelines are like something out of a Victor Hugo novel:  You can get 20 years in prison for violating fishing regulations! (Best advice any lawyer can give you:  Avoid the courts at all costs!)

While reforming the corrupt criminal justice system is a task no political party wishes to take on, we could take at least one step that would ameliorate the worst aspect of it:  abolishing the death penalty.  As Pope John Paul II taught and the the Catholic Church now incorporates into its official catechesis, the death penalty is morally permissible, as an act of societal self-defense, in those societies without the resources to lock up dangerous criminals; but in modern western societies, it is ethically and legally indefensible.

Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent (CCC 2267).”

While Ann Coulter and other death penalty supporters are correct that most condemned men and women are almost certainly guilty of heinous crimes, she is dead wrong (pardon the pun) that wrongful executions are rare.  From Jesus Christ on down through the ages, literally thousands of innocent people have been wrongly executed by incompetent and malicious government authorities.   DNA evidence has exonerated and released at least 15 death row inmates in the U.S. since 1992 alone.  Another 93 people charged with murder were exonerated by DNA testing.

The formerly prolife and now pro-abortion organization Amnesty International estimates calculates that since 1973 over 130 people have been released from death rows in the U.S. due to evidence of their wrongful convictions.  In Texas, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 for allegedly murdering his three daughters by burning down his house.   Despite the fact that the Texas Forensic Science Commission found that the arson claims were doubtful and Willingham’s wife disputed the claim that Willinham had killed his daughters to cover up abuse allegations, Governor Rick Perry refused to grant a pardon to Willingham. To me, that fact alone is a reason not to support Texas Governor Rick Perry for president and proof that he is still the big government Democrat he’s always been (when he supported Al Gore for president).

As the only sane candidate for president, Dr. Ron Paul, explains, the true conservative position is to oppose capital punishment:

“Over the years I’ve held pretty rigid to all my beliefs, but I’ve changed my opinion of the death penalty. For federal purposes I no longer believe in the death penalty. I believe it has been issued unjustly. If you’re rich, you get away with it; if you’re poor and you’re from the inner city you’re more likely to be prosecuted and convicted, and today, with the DNA evidence, there’ve been too many mistakes, and I am now opposed to the federal death penalty.”

Elsewhere, Paul explains that his opposition to the death penalty does not override his understanding of federalism, and thus, as president, he would not attempt to force the abolition of the death penalty on the states.  That is why he says he opposes the federal death penalty; that is the only death penalty a president has authority over.  However, in an interview with the Concord Monitor in August 2011, Dr. Paul made clear his opposition on principle:

“I don’t think it’s very good sign for civilization to still be invoking the death penalty. . . .

If you believe in the death penalty, what I really object to is the doctors participating in torture, and doctors who are there to make it smooth and sweet.

“Oh, let’s put him to sleep.” If it’s a death penalty, do it on Times Square, see ’em get their head chopped off and see how all the people, see how much they like it, make ’em look at it. I think it’s uncivilized. But, boy, there are some really bad people out there, makes it awfully temptin.”


As usual, Dr. Paul is willing to stick to his principles rather than kowtow, like most Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, to the latest public opinion poll — which tends to support capital punishment.

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