Florida conservatives organize to end the death penalty

Marc Hyden, national coordinator of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, announced the formation of the group's new Florida chapter at a press conference in Orlando this week. (Photo courtesy of CCADP.)

Though the death penalty was long embraced by both major political parties, that has changed in recent years, with the national Democratic Party last year adopting a platform calling for its abolition. As a result, the administration of capital punishment has become strongly associated with Republicans over the last decade — especially in the GOP-dominated South.

Since 2007, Southern Republican governors have been responsible for carrying out 70 percent of all U.S. executions. Meanwhile, high-profile death penalty cases have focused attention on GOP-led states in the region, such as the recent controversy over Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson's decision to execute eight men in 11 days before the state's lethal injection drugs expired, with four of those ultimately carried out.

But a group of conservatives is trying to move the Republican Party away from the death penalty. This week, Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, a project of Equal Justice USA, announced the launch of its Florida chapter. It is the group's 10th state chapter and the fifth in the South, according to Marc Hyden, CCADP's national coordinator. The other Southern states with chapters are Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee.

"Conservatives, by and large, believe in pro-life policies, fiscal responsibility and limited government," Hyden said, "and they believe that if there has to be a government program, it can at least be beneficial."

The group makes the case that the death penalty violates all three of those core conservative values. It emphasizes the discrepancy between claiming to be pro-life yet still supporting capital punishment, and for claiming to be skeptical of government yet allowing it to take people's lives.

"Many conservatives don't trust the government to do prosaic things like deliver their mail or fill pot holes," Hyden said, "but if you don't trust them to do that, should you trust them with a government program that metes out death to hopefully only guilty people?"

Though it is difficult to determine the exact cost of the death penalty, studies have shown the practice is the most expensive punishment prosecutors can pursue. In an investigation published in 2000, for example, the Palm Beach Post estimated the death penalty cost Florida $51 million dollars per year. And a comprehensive 1993 study on the death penalty in North Carolina showed an execution cost $2.16 million more than life imprisonment — and these costs are likely rising.

Florida, a leading death penalty state, recently had its capital punishment laws deemed unconstitutional. That will require hundreds of death row inmates to be resentenced, which will cost the state millions of dollars. The legal uncertainty has prevented any executions from taking place in the state since January 2016.

Florida also leads all states in death row exonerations, with 27 cases overturned since 1976, the year the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty after it had been deemed unconstitutional four years before. In 2000, for example, Frank Lee Smith was exonerated 11 months after he had passed away from cancer while still on the state's death row.

These exonerations became more frequent in the 1990s when DNA evidence was introduced and unreliable forensic science was being overturned. That was what made James Purdy, a Republican who serves as the elected public defender for Florida's 7th Judicial Circuit, a death penalty abolitionist.

"As an elected public official, with now almost 40 years' experience in the criminal justice system, I have come to the conclusion that the death penalty is so fatally flawed and so exorbitantly expensive that it is a travesty of justice and needs to be stopped," Purdy said. "We're too civilized a country to delve in this."