By John David Dyche
The conservative case against the death penalty has come to Kentucky. It is a compelling one.
Two Republican state representatives, David Floyd of Bardstown and Julie Raque Adams of Louisville, joined with six Democrats, including some of the chamber's most liberal members, to sponsor House Bill 330. They want to abolish the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without parole for both inmates already sentenced to death and others going forward.
The death penalty, in and of itself, is not unconstitutional. The Constitution expressly contemplates deprivation of life with due process of law.
The Supreme Court could change that, of course. With Justice Anthony Kennedy (also known as Ronald Reagan's biggest mistake) regularly substituting his personal predilections for constitutional text and history anything is possible.
But just because a practice passes constitutional muster does not make it a good idea. Many conservatives are coming to realize that the death penalty is a bad one.
Some crimes are so heinous that death may seem the most appropriate punishment. Yet even as to them the death penalty is not always carried out consistently, economically, effectively, or with absolute assurance of guilt.
Execution long delayed is a dubious deterrent. It is more likely an extremely expensive non-deterrent.
Floyd, a retired U.S. Air Force officer and Air Force Academy alumnus, has considerable conservative credibility. Apparently the first Kentucky Republican since 1980 to introduce a bill to abolish the death penalty, he asks whether it is a good use of tax money to maintain a system that spends $8-10 million annually prosecuting capital cases, executes very few people out of thousands of capital cases, and reverses many death penalty convictions.
"Conservatives don't trust our government to run our health care," Floyd says. "We don't trust them to respect constitutional limits on executive power. We're constantly mindful of the abuse of political power. But on the other hand, we trust the government with the power of life or death over a human who's in a system where prosecutors and judges are in political offices."
The group Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty describes itself as "a network of political and social conservatives who question the alignment of capital punishment with conservative principles and values." It is spreading the anti-death penalty gospel on the political right nationally.
In addition to the reasons Floyd cited, CCATDP notes the ever more undeniable risk of executing innocent people as a basis for abolishing capital punishment. A recent article on The Daily Caller website by Marc Hyden of CCATDP asserts that "over 140 individuals have been exonerated after being sentenced to death. Human fallibility in the criminal justice system puts innocent lives at risk, even with today's technology."
CCATDP's website includes quotes from several prominent conservatives and libertarians. For example, direct mail fundraising guru Richard Viguerie says, "Conservatives have every reason to believe the death penalty system is no different from any politicized, costly, inefficient, bureaucratic, government-run operation, which we conservatives know are rife with injustice. But here the end result is the end of someone's life. In other words, it's a government system that kills people."
Conservative stalwart Brent Bozell III states, "Since we believe each person has a soul, and is capable of achieving salvation, life in prison is now an alternative to the death penalty." Ron Paul adds, "I believe that support for the death penalty is inconsistent with libertarianism and traditional conservatism." Several other conservative stars have raised serious questions about capital punishment.
Don Vish, long active in conservative and Republican causes in Kentucky and a director of the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty says his opposition to the death penalty "is based on the uncivilized nature of a state-sanctioned, ritual execution of another human being by state employees in the name of all."
Some may reflexively think that eliminating the death penalty undermines conservative support for law and order and being tough on crime. It need not, especially if citizens have confidence that sentences of life in prison without parole are firmly administered without allowing inmates too many creature comforts and recreational privileges.
In a culturally conservative state like Kentucky it may take time to move more legislators, and Republicans in particular, to the anti-capital punishment position. Hearings on Floyd's bill and Louisville Democratic Senator Gerald Neal's companion Senate measure would be an important first step.
As we have seen on issues like gay marriage, public attitudes can change rapidly on even hot button topics. To paraphrase Victor Hugo, there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.
Abolition of the death penalty is such an idea, and its time has come for conservatives. Kentuckians owe a debt of gratitude to the conservative leaders like Floyd and Adams who are taking action on the issue.
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jddyche.