Robert Dunham 0:01


Hannah Cox 0:02


Robert Dunham 0:02

Welcome to Discussions with DPIC. I’m Robert Dunham, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center. In this episode, I’ll be speaking with Hannah Cox, the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, a network of political and social conservatives who believe that, as a policy, capital punishment is out of step with conservative principles and values. Miss Cox came to Conservatives Concerned after working at the Tennessee free market think tank, the Beacon Center, the Tennessee Firearms Association, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Hannah Cox, thank you for joining us.

Hannah Cox 0:32

Thanks so much for having me.

Robert Dunham 0:33

Hannah, I’d like to start off with a very basic question for those of our listeners who aren’t familiar with Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. When many people think of conservatives they still reflexively assume: well, she’s got to support the death penalty. First of all, is that perception really true? And secondly, when you look at the death penalty as a policy, is it consistent with conservative values?

Hannah Cox 0:55

Well, it’s definitely not consistent with conservative values, but I do think there’s an old stereotype that conservatives support it. I think I used to fit that stereotype. I was brought up in a Republican household, my dad’s a Southern Baptist minister, I was always taught that the death penalty was not only appropriate, but that it was actually justified and needed. I was like many people, though, that I think go throughout their political lives having a knee jerk reaction to the death penalty, and usually have somewhat of an emotional stance on it, without ever really looking into how it operates in practice. And so when I first started to encounter it and realize all the flaws around it, it sort of hit me in the gut, because I’m a conservative because I believe in limited government. I know the government’s fallible, I know it’s prone to error, I know it’s prone to corruption. I don’t know why so many people for many years have had this belief that the justice system is an exemption from that. It’s certainly not, and has all the same flaws we see in so many other government programs. I think that that’s why we’re seeing so many conservatives now turn against it. As we’re moving into the age of information and people are getting to see it up close like I did, they’re recognizing really quickly this isn’t something that values the sanctity of human life. This isn’t something that uses our resources efficiently. And this is really just a failed big government program that’s not actually producing anything that makes our community safer, that gives victims the tools that they need to rebuild their lives, or that really has any place in our society.

Robert Dunham 2:07

Now, a couple of years ago, your organization released a report called “The Right Way,” which described the growth of Republican sponsorship of bills to do away with the death penalty or to reform it. And I’m curious, you know, states have one by one been abolishing the death penalty. As we were sitting here preparing to start the podcast, Colorado just voted today, the final passage in the House of Representatives there to essentially become the 22nd state to abolish the death penalty. We’ve seen Republicans joining Democrats, we’ve seen Republicans leading Democrats, in efforts to repeal the death penalty. What’s happening now with the Republican legislators in the states where the death penalty is still on the books?

Hannah Cox 2:50

So, we’ve seen a tremendous growth in the number of conservatives who are not only turning against the death penalty, but are really leading the efforts to get rid of it. Last year, we had 10 states, out of the 25 that still have it in operation, 10 states had Republican sponsored bills to repeal the death penalty, and across those 10 bills, we had 56 conservative lawmakers sign, as sponsors. Many others voted in favor of those bills as well. I think that that’s really telling. We typically see legislatures kind of follow public opinion about 10 years behind. It takes them a while to catch up to where the public is, and so, the fact that we’re seeing so many Republicans really champion this, I think shows you just how far the constituencies have moved. I think it shows you that it’s something that’s politically popular, it’s something that is certainly bipartisan, and it’s something that people want to see their lawmakers lead on. We anticipate to see similar results this year, as you mentioned, in Colorado, where we just passed it today, we would not have gotten that through their Senate without significant Republican leadership and people who really took a stand and I think that we’ll continue to see others do that as well.

Robert Dunham 3:47

You know, it’s remarkable that we’ve been in the same place when big things have happened. You and I were sitting in New Hampshire during their hearings, and New Hampshire was a state where it’s a divided government, has a Republican governor, it’s had Republican legislators, Democratic legislators, and this time the legislature was Democratic. But, it passed the death penalty repeal, and overrode the governor’s veto by a single vote. Can you tell our listeners what efforts you were involved with the conservative efforts there, and how that kept enough votes to override the veto?

Hannah Cox 4:24

Yeah, it was really cool. We’ve had a good run so far, Rob. Since I took over, we’re just picking off these states one at a time, I think. But I think it’s been really interesting to watch the evolution, and even in the short time I’ve been leading this organization, which is still under two years, to really watch so much movement in different states — New Hampshire was spectacular. That was a state that had actually passed repeal the year before, in 2018 and had a Governor veto, which is very difficult to override a Governor’s veto, and had not managed to do it the first year. And then the momentum just kept going and going and then came back in 2019 and we saw the spines of a lot of Republican lawmakers, I think, really stiffen and recognize this is the right thing to do. This is what actually aligns with my values and my principles and this isn’t a party issue — this is a morality issue, this is a principle issue that I’m going to stand on, and you cannot tell me not to vote my conscience and not to vote for something that I see as pro life. And so when they passed it last year, and the Governor did veto it again, and it came back, you know, to get that vote by one person in each chamber to override the Governor’s veto, every single vote mattered in that instance. Every single one of those people made history and without every single one of them, we wouldn’t have gotten there. And so I think that it’s just really tremendous to watch that transpire. And the same thing is true in Colorado, without those three senators who signed on to sponsors there, it would not have gotten out of the Senate. Last year, there was just one. This year, two more were gained on the bill and I think that you’ll continue to see that because as we are moving these bills, I think a lot of people are being educated about the flaws of the death penalty and are being presented with facts that they just might not have known prior. And they’re also seeing their colleagues take a stand and recognizing that the ceiling doesn’t fall on them. That this isn’t something that is going to get pushed back, or really that the public is going to be upset about. In fact, they want to see people lead on it. And so I think you always see this sort of snowball effect in the states. Wyoming’s another one that came really close to passing last year. Very red state, had a young, energetic Republican sponsor who just got it out of the House, no problem, and then came just, you know, under a handful of votes shy of getting it out of the Senate. This year, as they were looking at bringing it back, it now has 40 co-sponsors signed on to that bill. They only have 90 people in their legislature. And so, it’s definitely something that I think, as it progresses in a state, more and more people get active and engaged.

Robert Dunham 6:30

And I think Utah is another one of the examples of this broad transformation that we’re seeing — both in the West in general, where the death penalty is at an all time low, and with Republican legislators in general. I’m thinking of Senator Steve Urquhart, who ended up sponsoring the the death penalty abolition bill a year after he voted in support of bringing back the firing squad. And his famous line, which I’ve stolen on numerous occasions, to describe growing conservative opposition to the death penalty: “if we don’t trust the government to fix potholes and regulate shoelaces, why should we trust them taking a human life?”

Hannah Cox 7:10

That’s exactly right, and I walked a similar evolution. I remember when I was first asked to work on Spin Around the Death Penalty when I was working around NAMI. And it was just a small death penalty bill, it was something that would exclude people with severe mental illness from the death penalty. But I said, “absolutely not.” I mean, I was an “I’ll do it myself type” right? I was that kind of conservative. And that was how it was framed to me. They said, “but you’re the limited government person around here. You don’t trust the government to deliver the mail. Why do you think that it can do this?” And no one had ever flipped it on me in that way before. I’d never thought about it in that context and it really spurred me to start researching and looking into it. And I think that you’ve heard this saying that support for the death penalty runs a mile wide and an inch deep, because the minute someone actually starts looking beneath the surface, there’s so many flaws. There’s so many problems, that it’s really a pretty indefensible system. And we see that in committee rooms across the country as we’re debating this issue. I was always told growing up that the only people who oppose the death penalty were bleeding heart liberals and that they were all emotion, but nothing could be further from the truth. When you’re sitting in these courtrooms and you’re listening to the discussions happening, this side of opposition is bringing all the data, the stats, the facts. We’re bringing the perspectives of multiple people who are impacted, whether it be victims family members, members of corrections, former prosecutors, law enforcement. All of these people who have seen it up close, and they’re talking about all the ways that it’s broken and not working. And then on the other side, you typically just hear some very emotional arguments that really come down to vengeance. And so it’s fascinating, I think that groups like yours and groups like mine, a lot of what we’re doing is just trying to educate people about what’s happening and really help them see behind the curtain of the justice system. And once that happens, I think you typically see people move very quickly.

Robert Dunham 8:45

I think one of the more notable areas in which we’re seeing much more conservative influence is among the religious leaders. And obviously, Pope Francis has been strong in his opposition to the death penalty, but I’ve noticed a change in the political discussion about innocent life. Years ago, in the 90s, what we would hear is people who said they were pro-life, distinguishing between the life of the victim and the life of the guilty defendant. And since that time, we’ve now seen 167 innocent men and women wrongly convicted and sent to death row and exonerated. My sense is, and I was wondering if you’ve seen this as well, that the discussion about the sanctity of life is no longer saying that we’ve got all these people and just assume that they’re guilty and that we never get it wrong and the question of innocent life doesn’t get involved in repealing the death penalty.

Hannah Cox 9:49

It’s certainly a driving factor, I think, in why you see so many conservatives turning against it. It certainly was the driving factor for me in changing my mind on it originally. I think that no matter what you think about this system in theory, no matter what you think about it holistically, that is indefensible. The fact that we’ve had one person exonerated for every nine executions in this country, we know we’re executing innocent people given those odds. We know it. There’s no way you can say you’re a pro-life person, or that you value the sanctity of human life, or that you believe in a limited government protecting individual rights against that government and stand by the system. It just doesn’t work.

Robert Dunham 10:24

You know, a couple minutes ago, when we were talking, you were saying how this is becoming less and less of a partisan issue, and we know that in the 1990s, opposing the death penalty was political poison, and didn’t matter whether you were Democrat or Republican. If you oppose the death penalty, and you had a death penalty proponent as your opponent, you were going to lose. The recent elections have shown that people who have sponsored death penalty moratoria, sponsored death penalty repeal bills, have been reelected. On the federal level, though, there’s some other stuff that’s going on. I’d be curious about as to your take on this. And I know that a number of conservatives have written letters in opposition to some of the things that they’re seeing with the federal administration. How do you, as a conservative, respond to the efforts of the current administration to bring back the federal death penalty and the rhetoric about expanding the death penalty while at the same time contracting appellate review?

Hannah Cox 11:26

Well, first, I’ll just add, not only do we see people getting reelected, but we’ve seen people come out in the primary phases of their candidacy in the past year. The Louisiana gubernatorial race, the Republican on one side came out anti-death penalty and clobbered the other guy. We’ve seen it in US Senate races on the Republican ticket. This is something where when people come out and lead on this, they’re not only getting reelected, they’re winning, and they’re beating the other Republicans who are not. So, I think that that shows a lot of interesting growth as well. As for the Trump administration’s actions, you know, it’s constantly frustrating. I think that we’ve seen him get a lot of criminal justice reform done — certainly more than the past couple administrations. And at times seems to have an appetite for that, and truly get it. And even in some recent statements, around his ally, Roger Stone, and his treatment in the justice systems, he said some things that I thought ‘that’s absolutely correct.’ You are identifying many of the problems in our justice system, now you just need to apply them more broadly and recognize that this is a problem across the board. It doesn’t just pertain to people you know. I thought the First Step Act was incredible, I thought that showed really great leadership and I think it certainly had a great response across the country and I think it will continue. I think that we see some hypocrisy, though, when you have on one hand, passing bills, like the First Step Act, letting people like Miss Alice out of prison, and then, at the same time, saying that people who do the kind of crime she committed should be executed. That he wants to expand it for people who are drug dealers, and it’s like, you’ve just let this woman out. You ran a commercial during the Super Bowl about her and about her redemption story, and in the same breath, you’re saying that people who commit crimes like her should be executed. It’s just very inconsistent. I think there’s still a lot of education to be done around that administration. I think there’s some really great people within that administration that do get it and I think we hopefully will see continued involvement there. But certainly there is a lot of work to be done. That being said, as a conservative, I really do think this is a states’ rights issue. I’m a big believer in federalism. I think that we’ve been approaching this at the right level and seeing tremendous success, even under Trump at that level and continue to see a lot of Republican lawmakers that don’t really care what he’s saying. And so I think that it’d be great if he and the administration could clue in a bit more to what’s happening with their own party across the country.

Robert Dunham 13:29

You know, one of the ironies with the death penalty, at least the way death penalty repeal is operating today, is that it has involved tremendous bipartisanship and this used to be one of the most politically divisive issues in the country. What have you seen in the ways of bipartisanship with death penalty repeal? And have you seen any indications that the relationships that are being rebuilt as a result of cooperation on this issue are being transferred to other issues?

Hannah Cox 14:07

That’s a great question. You know, as far as our work goes, a lot of what we’re doing is in the grassroots and working with different coalitions and different organizations on the ground, which is wonderful. We get to work with people from all across the spectrum. And, certainly, I think that it is something that impacts our relationships with each other, right? I think so many people in this country just don’t know people on the other side of the aisle to begin with and so it’s very easy to demonize people and stereotype them when you don’t know them. I remember when I was going into Colorado, I was working with some people with the ACLU and after the first full day, we went to get drinks and they said, “I was telling the rest of team like I think she’s actually very nice.” I just cracked up and I was like, yeah, I’m not you know, this Boogeyman conservative person and we end up getting along and actually finding we agreed on a lot of other issues as well. There’s issues we don’t agree on, but when you have that friendship and you have that relationship, I think it just makes it easier to work together and to find common ground. And even when you do disagree, to not move into contentious territory. So, I have to think that that is true for other people and their experience as well. Certainly, we’ve seen some interesting allies when it comes to our sponsors on some of these bills and I do hope that it’s reminding us that we can come together on things we agree on and achieve things that really matter. You know, there’s so much in politics that doesn’t matter, that happens and really doesn’t impact anybody. When it comes to this work, we’re talking about lives. We’re talking about families. We’re talking about generations. We’re talking about something that has really meaningful, lasting change. And I think that if we could have that same synergy on other issues, we might really get somewhere as a country,

Robert Dunham 15:34

When we look at the map of the United States, and people like to think of blue states and red states and purple states. But when we look at the map of the United States, when it comes to the death penalty, what we seem to be seeing is a map is becoming progressively without the death penalty, irrespective of the political affiliation of the state itself. I’ve been watching the East Coast with New Hampshire abolishing the death penalty. You can now go from the tip of Maine, all the way through to West Virginia, and never drive your car into a state that has the death penalty. And that takes us to the start of the Southern states. And that’s Virginia. And there’s some very interesting stuff going on in Virginia, can you tell us about that?

Hannah Cox 16:29

Yeah, Virginia has been a state to watch. I think that you certainly see a lot of their political makeup changing, so that’s been interesting to observe and see where they’re getting. They’ve certainly made good progress on bills like their Severe Mental Illness Exclusion bill, and I think the conversation around death penalty repeal is consistently being elevated there. They’re certainly a state that I think within the next five years, we could see repeal come. I think that they could be the tipping point for the Bible Belt, which is really the active area left. You know, we have 25 states that still have it functioning in some capacity. But, over a third of those haven’t used it in a decade or more, and last year, we only had seven states that were carrying it out, and if you look at who those states are, it’s usually in this, you know, very small sliver of the country. And I think that we know, and being a southerner from Tennessee and having lived there, I know that lawmakers in the states really care what their neighbors do. They’re very interested in what’s happening around them, who’s leading on what, if they’re behind, so many of them rank at the bottom for so many things when it comes to education and quality of life, that they’re very competitive among each other. And I think that the death penalty is something that if one state is to get rid of it in that region, it could have a bit of a domino effect and really start the conversation in other states around there. So, Virginia is important for that reason. I think Kentucky is another one that could be important for that reason, and it’s certainly going to be fascinating to keep track of.

Robert Dunham 17:48

And right on the northern border of Kentucky is Ohio, which has executed more people than any other Northeastern state since the death penalty came back. But right now, Ohio seems to be at a moment where it is reconsidering what’s going on, and the reconsideration is being firmly led by a Republican governor and by the Republican Speaker of the House. You were just out there, what’s going on there?

Hannah Cox 18:15

That’s right. I have to tell you, it’s going down in Ohio. I don’t know if the rest of the country is quite paying attention to what’s happening there, but things are moving really, really quickly. And you’re right, Ohio was a state that honestly really wasn’t on my radar in the past year. It was a very high usage state. It has one of the largest death rows in the country. It was still carrying out executions until very recently. And we saw a massive change start with the new governor’s administration. Governor DeWine, when he came in, and just started subtly clearing the calendar of executions and made some statements to the media that, you know, this has been found unconstitutional, as far as their protocol goes, and that he’s not going to carry out an unconstitutional process. He hasn’t really tipped his hat as to what he exactly thinks about the death penalty. We know he was involved with bringing it back when he was in the legislature and he did carry out executions when he was Attorney General. But we also know that many people who have been Attorney General and had to make that decision then turn against it because of the burden and the weight of it all on them. So, I think we definitely see someone who certainly doesn’t have an appetite for executions anymore. And then that has been taken a step further with their Speaker of the House, Larry Householder, coming out and basically saying, the system’s broken, it doesn’t work. We’re going to start conversations and see where our members are and see about getting rid of it. So, we’ve been heavily involved in the state for the past, you know, six, seven months. I’ve been in there quite a few times, met with a lot of their statewide elected officials, a lot of their lawmakers, and a lot of their grassroots conservatives and activists and people who are really, you know, behind the scenes in politics. And we’re getting a tremendous response I think. It’s very Catholic state, a very pro-life state. It’s a state that when it says it’s conservative, they mean it, they’re fiscally responsible. And I think that I see a lot of really strong, principled conservatives there. I love working there. I always say, going into Ohio feels like I’m working in the Republican Party I grew up with. I mean, people are just so thoughtful and really principled in their values. So, I think we’re looking at a state that could be seeing repeal within the next year or two there. And that’s just absolutely phenomenal to people who know Ohio and its history. We launched our 14th state-based group there last week, actually. So, we launched Ohio Conservatives Concerned, had tremendous media response there. We also released our statement of support where we have a couple dozen well-known Ohio Republicans who have signed on, including former Republican Governors and Attorneys Generals and US Congressman, current Republicans who are in office and again, a lot of operatives and activists in the state. And we’re already seeing that list continued to grow since we launched. So, there’s there’s a lot of momentum, a lot happening there and I’m very excited about what we’re seeing in Ohio.

Robert Dunham 20:38

Ohio brings me to another question, and this is something I know we’ve had conversations in the past on a number of issues, but this is something we haven’t discussed — and that’s the pharmaceutical companies. Governor DeWine said what many people thought was the case, that pharmaceutical companies are now at the point where they’re not only putting restrictions on their sales because they don’t want their medicines that are designed to save lives to be misused in taking lives. But they’re also saying that if states continue to mislead them about what they’re going to use the drugs for, they’re going to cut off the drug supply to state prisons, state hospitals, veteran’s facilities and things along those lines. It is interesting to me, and I was wondering, given your prior involvement in a free market think tank, what you think about the developing role of the market in opposing capital punishment, and what that tells us about the contemporary values of American society?

Hannah Cox 21:47

Yeah, that actually was one of the first articles I wrote when I started this job was about the free market tie ins here because what speaks more loudly than the market? You know, I love free market economics. I think it’s a fascinating subject. I think it tells you so much more than what a poll could ever tell you about where society is and we do see that the drug manufacturers are adamant — they do not want their products used in this way. We’re the only western country still doing this. This is seen as a huge human rights violation by most of the rest of the world, and even many of the people in the country. And this is something that’s not going to help their sales. It’s something that, you know, many of them develop these products on their own dime, and have taken an oath, and have done that to basically try to save life not to take it. And so it really is an ethical issue. It’s a freedom of association issue. I know for many years before I actually got involved with this work, I always thought it was people like me that were keeping states from getting the drugs. It was like the activists that were somehow pulling strings. And so, to find out what was really going on, when I started this work, and seeing that states are using all these anti-transparency laws to try to use subterfuge to basically violate their contracts to get these drugs, it’s actually something that I think should be more of a conservative issue in and of itself. You know, I don’t believe, as a conservative, that you have to be forced to “bake the cake” if that violates your ethical views and your moral views and I don’t think you should be forced to supply to drugs to kill people if that violates your ethical views and your moral views. That’s a very consistent argument. And I think that that’s something we should be elevating more — about exactly what states are doing and about how they’re misleading the public about what they’re doing. Because I think that many conservatives, no matter how they feel about the death penalty, would be upset about that issue alone.

Robert Dunham 23:15

And I think the drug issue and secrecy leads us into another issue that is bothering a lot of conservatives, libertarians, liberals, a lot of people who are concerned about open government, and that is the state secrecy. We’re seeing in the states that are carrying out executions, not just retreating behind a veil of secrecy to obtain the drugs, but then to affirmatively use that veil of secrecy in lawsuits, to try to prevent prisoners from being able to develop their claims about whether the drugs that are being used to kill them are appropriate drugs to use. What have you been hearing among conservatives about the lack of open government and what that represents to them when it comes to making judgments about the death penalty?

Hannah Cox 24:06

Yeah, it’s another really big deal. We actually filed an amicus brief on behalf of some death row defendants in Tennessee last year concerning this very issue. I think the problem that we’re facing when it comes to this specific topic is that people just aren’t aware. You know, when you don’t have open government, it’s really hard for people to be aware of all the things government is shielding from them. It’s really difficult to obtain these details. It’s really difficult, again, for, you know, just in the first place for people who have been convicted to try to work through their claims. We’ve got a lot of roadblocks that we’ve put in place when it comes to the appellate process to be able to prove wrongful convictions even. And so just talking to people about how difficult it is to move through the system is a huge educational lift for us that we are constantly trying to make people more aware of. And once they find out about this, they automatically have this knee jerk reaction of, you know, it shouldn’t be that way. How do we change this? But the problem with it is that’s just the surface level issue. It just keeps going. It’s such a massive, massive problem throughout the justice system. And it’s one reason that I think we just need to stop this carte blanche. We don’t need to keep messing with this because there are all these problems compounding, things that we even know about, it’s very difficult for people to get the kind of due process that they’re supposed to be guaranteed. And I think that we need to stop killing people first, and then start addressing some of these issues as they pertain to other sentences. Because it’s not just a problem that death penalty system, this is throughout the justice system. And I think that maybe that’s why conservatives, for so long, have had the view that the justice system operates so much differently than the rest of government, because they have been blocked from actually having a lot of accurate knowledge about what’s really going on behind the scenes.

Robert Dunham 25:37

Well, this has been a fascinating discussion. I know you have to get back to the the conservative political action event that’s going on right here in Washington right now. But, before I let you go, what do you see on the horizon that folks should be aware of? Where do you think that we’re going in the immediate future?

Hannah Cox 25:56

Well, again, I think Ohio is the state to watch for the next year. I think we’ll see in the next month or so exactly what that trajectory is going to look like. I think Wyoming will be back strong next year, they took a year off. They’re in a short budgetary session, so they had a really high threshold to get any bills introduced that weren’t pertaining to the budget. So, but next year, I think they’re going to have a really good shot of passing it. I think Utah continues to make a lot of movement and then that’s another state that could be progressing shortly. And then when it comes to the South, you know, there’s a couple states where we have seen a lot going on behind the scenes, Louisiana, Virginia, Kentucky, there’s there’s some other movement happening there. And so I think as of right now, we’ve got 22 states that have repealed legislatively, four others have moratorium, so that’s 26. So we’re constantly whittling down the number of states where we’re still working. And I think that within the next 10 years, I don’t think you’ll see the system anymore. I just don’t think it has that much life left in it. I think that it is quickly progressing. And so I think it’s time for people to get involved if they want to be on the right side of history. And we’ve got a lot moving in our favor.

Robert Dunham 26:56

Well, Hannah Cox, thank you for joining us on discussions with DPIC.

Hannah Cox 26:59

Thank you.

Robert Dunham 27:00

For more information about Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, visit You can also find links to the report “The Right Way: More Republican Leaders Championing Death Penalty Repeal” on their website and in the description going along with this podcast. To learn more about the death penalty visit And to make sure you never miss an episode of Discussions with DPIC subscribe through your podcast app of choice.