NEW VOICES: The Conservative Case for Death Penalty Repeal in Kentucky

David Floyd, a Republican state representative in Kentucky, recently introduced a bill to repeal the state’s death penalty, arguing that the law was incompatible with conservative values. Writing in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Floyd said his religious views initially caused him to oppose the death penalty, but he made a broader pragmatic case for repeal from a conservative perspective. He pointed to values such as respect for life, limiting government power, and cutting wasteful spending, as reasons to support abolition. He said, “Capital punishment in Kentucky is a broken government program that risks killing the wrongly convicted, risks abuse of power, wastes resources, is arbitrary and unjust.” He concluded, “Conservatives must work with people across the political spectrum to expose the many deficiencies of Kentucky’s system of capital punishment. And then we must repeal it.” Read the op-ed below.

A case for repealing the death penalty

David Floyd

On Feb. 12, I held a press conference in the Kentucky Capitol to introduce House Bill 330, my bill to repeal the death penalty. Truthfully, I don’t believe that many people have thought deeply about capital punishment, and, I admit, I had insufficiently pondered it as well.

My initial opposition formed through a spiritual lens, so in 2007 I joined others in cosponsoring legislation to repeal the death penalty. But I was the only conservative legislator in a group of liberals.

Over these last few years, “liberal” and spiritual arguments have failed to persuade other legislators to take up these bills.

How, then, might we bring other conservatives with us, and at last vote to abolish our death penalty? This can be done by exploring together conservative arguments in favor of repeal.

• Conservatives value innocent life and should not support a state government program that can kill innocent people.

In a government program run by human beings mistakes can be made; with the death penalty, innocent people can and have been executed. Kentucky has sentenced 78 individuals to death since 1976. Fifty of those convictions have been overturned, and one inmate was released from a sentence of death because he was wrongly convicted. Conservatives should agree that it’s not worth sacrificing the innocent to kill the guilty.

• Conservatives are mindful of the potential to abuse power that has been granted by the people, and should not trust the government with the power to execute a person who is safely behind bars.

In Kentucky judges and prosecutors hold elective political office, but surely the decision to execute someone should not be a political decision. Our history suffers no shortage of elected leaders who have abused their power. Giving them authority to kill should be worrisome.

• Conservatives are the first to call out government programs that fail to meet intended goals and cost exorbitant amounts of money. (We certainly don’t trust the government to run our nation’s health-care system, for example.)

Death penalty cases require decades of court activity. Our precautions require this lengthy and costly process; it cannot be shortened. This puts families of murder victims and families of the condemned through years of additional trauma with the accompanying media attention and uncertainty.

• Conservatives want a government that will balance budgets, cut waste and eliminate programs that do not make fiscal sense.

Kentucky’s death penalty is a program that costs a lot while accomplishing little. We’ve spent well more than $100 million on the death penalty since 1976 — and executed three people. Having a death penalty is clearly wasting taxpayer dollars, while a penalty of life without the possibility of parole makes much better economic sense.

Lady Justice is usually depicted wearing a blindfold, signifying objectivity. There should be no favor in meting out justice, no regard for power or weakness, nor money, or position. The truth is our death penalty doesn’t meet this standard. Most Kentucky counties don’t use it. Two identical murders in bordering counties can receive two completely different sentences. To make matters worse, people of color and those in poverty are disproportionately sentenced to death rather than to life in prison. Something is terribly wrong.

Capital punishment in Kentucky is a broken government program that risks killing the wrongly convicted, risks abuse of power, wastes resources, is arbitrary and unjust. We’ve tried to make the death penalty work, but we have been unable to fix its many problems and reconcile it with our conservative principles. We should repeal the death penalty and replace it with life without parole. It’s the only way to ensure that no innocent people are killed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and that those impacted by the process get finality much sooner.

Gerald Neal in the Senate (SB 77) and Julie Raque Adams in the House are helping to lead our effort this year, joining others who have been in the fight for decades. Conservatives must work with people across the political spectrum to expose the many deficiencies of Kentucky’s system of capital punishment. And then we must repeal it.

(D. Floyd, “A case for repealing the death penalty,” Courier-Journal, March 2, 2014). See New Voices and Recent Legislation.