New Voices - Conservative Voices

Conservative Former Congressman Questions Fairness and Accuracy of the Death Penalty

Former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr, a well-known conservative voice and a death penalty supporter, recently questioned the fairness and accuracy of capital punishment in an opinion piece published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Barr noted that a recent University of Virginia study of wrongful conviction cases has raised serious questions about the reliability of eyewitness identification. He also applauded the Georgia Supreme Court's recent decision to grant a hearing to death row inmate Troy Davis, who has also been given a 90-day stay of execution by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles due to concerns about his possible innocence. In the Davis case, seven of the nine eyewitnesses who testified against him during his trial have now recanted or changed their testimony, and new witnesses have implicated one of the state's key witnesses against Davis as the real killer. Barr said that "the credibility of our criminal justice system" is at stake in Davis' case, writing: I've been called a lot of things, but a "bleeding heart liberal" is not one of them. I am a firm believer in the propriety and historic soundness of the death penalty. But, as a proponent of our Constitution and its attendant Bill of Rights, I believe just as strongly in the fundamental fairness that lies at the heart —- or should lie at the heart —- of our criminal justice system. Because of its obvious finality, the death penalty must be employed with as close to absolute fairness and certainty as humanly possible. Several recent cases, including that of Troy Davis here in Georgia, have raised legitimate questions about just that proposition. True conservatives, as much as the most bleeding heart liberals, should be unafraid to look carefully at such cases.

A new study of wrongful convictions —- "Judging Innocence" by University of Virginia law Professor Brandon Garrett —- provides cause for concern.

Professor Garrett studied 200 cases of wrongful convictions and found that in each case, DNA evidence conclusively proved the individual's innocence and resulted in exoneration. According to Garrett, the leading cause of these wrongful convictions was erroneous identification by eyewitnesses, which occurred in an overwhelming 79 percent of the cases. Even more disturbing, in 25 percent of the cases, this faulty eyewitness testimony was the only evidence against the defendant

In 31 of these 200 cases, the prisoners appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the court refused to hear the appeal or ruled against them. In other cases, higher courts decided that trial errors were "harmless" and therefore did not constitute grounds to reverse. Even with DNA evidence conclusively clearing them, many of these defendants faced enormous obstacles in convincing courts to overturn their convictions.  These individuals had their proverbial "day in court," but the wrong person was convicted and sent to prison or death row. Perhaps equally troubling, the real perpetrators remained free and in at least some cases committed more crimes.

Garrett concluded that the resistance of courts was not the only reason why these innocent people were unable to prove they were innocent. Another reason is that procedural obstacles often prevent courts from hearing evidence, even evidence of innocence. Also, good lawyers are essential to enable a defendant to mount a defense and raise all relevant issues. Several years ago, a commission of distinguished Georgians concluded that our state failed to provide a "constitutionally sufficient, fair criminal justice system." The commission said the state must provide "[s]ignificantly more money ... for those without adequate resources to provide [a defense] for themselves." It found that while more money was essential, it was equally important for the state to create a public defense system that "insures quality, uniformity and accountability." Georgia responded by creating a much-improved defense system. Unfortunately, because the Legislature failed to provide a practical mechanism to implement and fund the new system, it is itself now threatened by a funding crisis.

Troy Davis, recently granted a 90-day stay of execution by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles and a promised hearing before the state Supreme Court, had his "day in court." Yet nearly every reason Garrett cites for wrongful convictions applies in the Davis case. The murder weapon was never found, and there was no other physical evidence tying Davis to the crime. While it was representing him, the Georgia Resource Center's budget was slashed; his lawyer admitted the best he could do was to try "to avert total disaster." Seven of the nine eyewitnesses have since recanted or changed their testimony, some even saying they implicated Davis only because of extreme pressure from the police. And new witnesses have now implicated one of the remaining witnesses as the real killer.

Troy Davis' life is at stake; but so is the credibility of our criminal justice system. If a "day in court" means anything, it is that this man is entitled to a thorough and fair review of evidence that he is innocent. Georgia's highest court has determined that a "day in court" —- crucial for those accused of capital offenses —- must be measured not only temporally but qualitatively as well. In this, we should all applaud them.

(Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 8, 2007).

Nebraska Repeal Bill Passes Unanimously in Committee

For the first time in nearly two decades, members of the Nebraska's unicameral legislature will have an opportunity to debate a bill that would repeal the state's death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life without parole and an order of restitution. Members of the legislature's Judiciary Committee unanimously advanced the bill, noting that their colleagues in the full senate should have a chance to debate the measure. The bill's sponsor, Senator Ernie Chambers, introduced a similar measure in 1979 that won approval by the legislature, but was vetoed by then-Governor Charles Thorne. 

During the Judiciary Committee's hearing on the bill, those testifying noted that capital punishment is more expensive than sentences of life without parole and urged passage of the measure because Nebraska's current death penalty does not adequately address the potential for racial bias and wrongful convictions in capital cases. University of Colorado sociology professor Michael Radelet testified that capital punishment does not deter murder and that public support for the death penalty is waning. Former Senator Loran Schmit told the committee that he was an outspoken supporter of the death penalty for many years before he was a member of the Legislature. He said he changed his mind when he learned of the disparities in sentencing for those who commit murder. Schmit added, "I also thought the death penalty would be a deterrent. I no longer believe that."

(Lincoln Star Journal, February 1, 2007).

U. N. Ambassador Nominee Opposed to the Death Penalty

Former Republican Senator John Danforth of Missouri, President Bush’s nominee to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, is a long-time opponent of capital punishment. During his tenure in the Senate, Danforth made his position on the death penalty clear in a 1994 Senate floor statement: “I think we should do away with the death penalty. As a matter of personal conscience, I have always opposed the death penalty.... We have had up or down votes on capital punishment. I always vote against it.” CNN notes that as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Danforth hopes that he can “glue things back together” at the world body, where U.S. relations have been strained since the Iraq war.

(103rd Cong. Rec. S5701 (May 12, 1994);, June 17, 2004).

George F. Will, "Reason and Death" The Washington Post, October 30, 2003

In a recent column examining Massachusetts' consideration of the death penalty, conservative columnist George Will cites the conclusions of death penalty experts who have closely examined the accuracy and effectiveness of this punishment. Will cited the work of the Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment and especially the experience of author Scott Turow. Will believes that Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's effort to find a faultless death penalty will ultimately fail.

Read the full text here.

Death Penalty Fails to Meet Conservative Standards

In a recent Greensboro News & Record op-ed, Marshall Hurley, a long-time Republican in North Carolina, questioned giving the state authority to carry out executions when the current practice of capital punishment fails to meet conservative standards and risks innocent lives. He stated:
For those who believe in the virtue of limited government and criticize roundly when government does not work well, capital punishment does not meet fundamental conservative standards. Not only is it applied arbitrarily, but our judicial system cannot even figure out how to examine it properly. Forty-seven judges reviewing a single case over more than a dozen years may assure some that justice is served; to others, it evinces an appeals process in disarray, a game of such utter complexity that nothing is certain except delay and dismay. No one is well served - not families of victims, not law enforcement and certainly not the judicial system.
. . .
North Carolina conservatives, liberals and everyone in between should question whether our state government should authorize execution of people when we know, to a moral certainty, that some of them are innocent. There is no principled justification for any conservative to place limits on government power in all other areas, but grant it the power to kill, knowing it will make mistakes.

(Greensboro News & Record, July 27, 2003)

Death Penalty Supporter Would Shift If Innocent Person Executed

Dianne Clements, president of Justice for All, an organization that strongly supports the death penalty, said "If I believed we executed an innocent inmate, I couldn't support the death penalty." A recent Scripps Howard Poll in Texas revealed that 69% of the public believes that Texas has already executed an innocent person. The poll also found that most Texans still endorse the death penalty.

(Houston Chronicle, March 16, 2003)

Unexpected Supporters of Moratorium Movement

Mother Jones magazine features an article with the caption, "Small Town Justice - It's not just Berkeley and Cambridge. Now some Southern towns are joining the call for a moratorium on the death penalty." The piece examines why 19 North Carolina municipalities, including some of the state's most conservative communities, have demanded a stop to all executions until officials devise a fair and impartial system to administer the death penalty. The author notes, "In rural towns like Winfall and major cities like Charlotte, Republicans have joined Democrats and whites have joined blacks to form moratorium majorities."

(Mother Jones, September/October 2002)

Executive Director of American Conservative Union Voices Concerns About Innocence and the Death Penalty

Christian Josi, Executive Director of the American Conservative Union and consultant on the campaign of former Vice President Dan Quayle, writes:

"My fundamental problems with the death penalty began as a result of my personal concern, echoed by many on all sides of the political spectrum, that it was inconsistent for one to be "pro-life" on the one hand and condone government execution on the other. Pope John Paul II weighed in and cleared up the issue for me a bit, but dare I say, I still had my doubts.
Then came the talk of margin of error; the fact that in the course of business, the government had sentenced innocent people to death based on either just plain poor legal representation or discoveries obtained through advanced DNA technology.
. . .
The time has come for us to get beyond government executions." (CACP News Notes, 11/26/01)

"[S]lowly, grudgingly, I've come to believe that the death penalty should be ended in Virginia and across this country. I'm also well aware that the Roman Catholic Church, of which I'm a member, opposes the death penalty. That stance has had an effect on me.
Life in prison without parole is a reasonable -- though imperfect -- alternative. Our collective quest for vengeance might not be satisfied. But we as a society won't have to wonder whether we executed an innocent person."

(The Virginian-Pilot, 6/30/01)

Conservative Ohio Republicans Speak Out Against Capital Punishment

In Ohio, conservative, faith-based Republicans have been speaking out against the state's use of capital punishment. "The death penalty never solves anything," said Rep. Thomas Brinkman Jr. (R-Cincinnati), a Roman Catholic who opposes abortion and favors a concealed-carrying gun law. Supporting both a study and a moratorium on executions, Brinkman said, "You should stand for your principles." Also speaking out against the death penalty was Rep. Jim Trakas (R-Cleveland), the fifth ranking member of the House and chairman of the Cuyahoga County GOP and Rex Zent, a former warden at two state prisons. "It's not about crime prevention or crime deterrence or saving money," said Zent. By executing people, Zent said, "We're creating a lot of other residual victims."

(Columbus Dispatch, 6/19/01)

Conservative Leaders Join Moratorium Group in Urging President Bush to Suspend Federal Executions

Citizens for a Moratorium On Federal Executions (CMFE), a Washington-based group of prominent citizens concerned about the death penalty, sent a letter to President Bush this week calling for a halt to federal executions until lingering questions about its fairness can be resolved. The letter was signed by both well-known death penalty opponents and conservative leaders such as Emmett Tyrell Jr., editor in chief of The American Spectator and John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute. In light of last year's Justice Department finding of racial and geographic disparities in the federal death penalty, those signing the letter to the new Administration noted the need for further study to ensure evenhandedness in its application of capital punishment. With the possibility of a stay in the McVeigh case, the CMFE focused on the case of Juan Raul Garza, who may be the first federal inmate executed since 1963. Garza, an Hispanic man convicted of murder in Texas, is scheduled to be executed on June 19. Last December, he received a stay of execution from President Clinton to allow further investigation of the disparities reported by the Justice Department. A follow-up study has yet to be released. Garza is seeking clemency from President Bush on the grounds that his death sentence may have been "based on his ethnicity or state of prosecution."

(ABC 6/4/01) Read the letter to President Bush. See also, Federal Death Penalty

In a recent piece in the New York Post, Rod Dreher urged conservatives to rethink the death penalty:

FBI Director Louis Freeh did what Pope John Paul II has not been able to do: turn this law-and-order Catholic conservative against the death penalty.
. . .
After the McVeigh debacle, who can trust our government to administer capital punishment?
We know all about McVeigh's saga. But what of the anonymous cases where the defendant's guilt is less obvious, and law enforcement feels less of an obligation to do things by the book?
. . .
We conservatives cannot afford to let our justified outrage at unrepentant killers like McVeigh make us morally indifferent to the deadly and irrevocable peril in which society places the truly guiltless on trial for their lives.
At some point in this death-penalty debate, the sanctity of innocent life demands that men and women of conservative conscience have to say: Enough.

(New York Post, 5/15/01)

Conservative Nevada Republican Supports Death Penalty Moratorium and Study

Sen. Mark James (R-Las Vegas) is urging the state Assembly to pass a bill that will provide for a moratorium on executions while Nevada's capital punishment system is studied. "[N]ever has the death penalty been the subject of a study in this state that I know of," said James. "Never. And the system is broken." James, who in the past worked on bills to toughen the state's criminal laws, expressed his concern about who receives the death penalty in Nevada. "The Assembly passed a bill unanimously which prohibits racial profiling in traffic stops and yet 40 percent of those on death row are African Americans and nobody says a thing about it." He added, "There is not a single person on death row that had a fully funded private defense. If you're rich, you're not going to get capital punishment - period."

(Nevada Appeal, 4/21/01)

The Rutherford Institute Urges President Bush to Declare a Death Penalty Moratorium

In a letter to President Bush, John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, called for a moratorium on federal executions until its fairness is reviewed by a national commission. The review would follow a study released last year by the U.S. Justice Department that found racial and geographic disparities in the federal death penalty. Whitehead expressed his concern with these disparities as well as the implications the federal death penalty has on relations with foreign governments. In a related article, Whitehead wrote: "Even if President Bush is convinced that the death penalty in theory is right, its application in the federal system clearly deserves closer scrutiny. A moratorium simply acknowledges the need for more justice, not less. And if compassion means anything, it means a baseline commitment to justice for all, regardless of race, color or creed."

(The Rutherford Institute Press Release, 4/3/01)

Conservative Virginia Republicans Propose Death Penalty Moratorium and Abolition Legislation

Del. Frank Hargrove (R- Hanover County, pictured), recently introduced a bill in the Virginia General Assembly to abolish the death penalty. Hargrove, who once proposed bringing back hanging as a method of execution in Virginia, said that he was troubled by the possibility that mistakes could lead to the execution of an innocent person. Another conservative Republican, Jeannemarie Devolites (R-Fairfax County), is sponsoring a moratorium bill which would suspend executions until after the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission completes its review of the state's death penalty system. "I think there's a lot of concern, not just from legislators, but from the public as a whole, that we could be executing innocent people," said Devolites. Del. Robert Marshall (R-Prince William), has proposed legislation that would require that capital juries be told that Virginia nearly executed an innocent man, Earl Washington, who was eventually exonerated by DNA evidence.

(Associated Press, 1/20/01) For a compilation of proposed Virginia Legislation, see See also, Changes in the Death Penalty.

Conservative Virginia Republican Proposes Death Penalty Abolition

Republican Del. Frank D. Hargrove Sr., (R-Hanover) recently stated his intent to introduce a death penalty abolition bill in the upcoming General Assembly.

"One of the responsibilities of government is to protect the public. I have voted for the death penalty over the years numerous times. But now that we have life without parole I believe that addresses the situation without a sentence that is irreversible." He said if you make a mistake in the death penalty, "you can't go back and reverse it." He said the death penalty cannot be shown to be a deterrent, that it probably costs no more to imprison an inmate for life than it does to pursue a death case through trial and appeals and that it's still an imperfect process even with DNA. "I know, politically, some folks will say they think I'm crazy, but I'm not interested in the politics of it," said Hargrove. "This eliminates the possibility of the awful mistake. It's not a political issue, it's not an economics issue."

(Richmond Times-Dispatch, 11/14/00)

Recently, questions about capital punishment have come from some unusual sources:

"I think a [death penalty] moratorium would indeed be very appropriate."
-Rev. Pat Robertson, speaking at a symposium on religion and the death penalty at the College of William and Mary. (Washington Post, 4/8/00)

"Horror, too, is a reasonable response to what Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld and Jim Dwyer demonstrate in Actual Innocence: Five Days to Execution and Other Dispatches from the Wrongly Convicted. You will not soon read a more frightening book. It is a catalog of appalling miscarriages of justice, some of them nearly lethal. Their cumulative weight compels the conclusion that many innocent people are in prison, and some innocent people have been executed."
-George F. Will, "Innocent on Death Row," (Washington Post, 4/4/00)

"[Death penalty opponents] came up with a new approach. It was less moralistic - no candles, please. It relied on new ways of using the media. And it was designed to appeal to the public's sense of fairness without appearing squishy on violent crime. So far, it's been a smashing success."
-Byron York, "The Death of Death," The American Spectator, April 2000

In a recent article for the Capitol Forum, Paul C. Mifsud, who served as Chief of Staff to former Ohio Governor George V. Voinovich, expressed his changed view of capital punishment. "For most of my political life I held strongly conservative views. I was pro-life and pro-death penalty," said Mifsud. "I understand more clearly today that alternatives exist - such as life imprisonment without the possibility of parole - which protect society, and which respect the sanctity of life. If God creates life and commands us not to kill, then what choice do we have but to stop state-sanctioned killing altogether?"

A recent editorial in the conservative Washington Times implied support for a death penalty moratorium

"[I]f this country is to have the death penalty, we must be as certain as is humanly possible that executions are restricted to the guilty. States should be encouraged to make sure that is the case. Even if 66 percent of Americans support the death penalty, it is no argument to say (as some conservatives have done) that the death of an innocent person here or there is not enough to reconsider what we are doing.
During a moratorium, the state would keep its electricity and gas bills paid and its stockpiles of potassium chloride intact against the day when the moratorium ends and executions resume -- presumably following improvements in the way convictions are produced. Surely no one could reasonably object to making sure we execute only the guilty."

(Washington Times, 6/6/00)

Return to New Voices