Momentum to abolish the death penalty picks up among conservatives

Map showing which states have the death penalty on the books as of 2019

Twenty-five states, including every Southern state except West Virginia, still have the death penalty. (Map via Death Penalty Information Center)

A gathering of anti-death penalty activists this month in New Orleans aims to kick-start a movement to abolish the death penalty at the state level. But those attending are not capital punishment's typical foes. 

"I'm a lifetime Republican, a cradle conservative," E. King Alexander told Facing South. "From a small government perspective, I think the government needs to stay in its lane vis-à-vis the liberties of the people."

A public defender in Louisiana's Calcasieu Parish and a member of his state Republican Party's Central Committee, Alexander is a part of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. The national group was launched at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference as a project of Equal Justice USA, a Brooklyn, New York-based nonprofit that works to break cycles of trauma through justice system reforms.

Conservatives Concerned is holding its first annual national meeting from Sept. 6-8, giving like-minded anti-death penalty advocates from across the U.S. a chance to meet, network, and begin organizing campaigns in their respective states. People affiliated with the group hold various views on why the death penalty should be abolished. For some, like Alexander, the taking of a life represents government overreach. For others, it's a cost issue, as carrying out a capital sentence is often more expensive than life imprisonment. And for those like Donald Triplett, the treasurer of North Carolina's Swain County Republican Party, it's an extension of their fundamental values. 

"I was raised to be pro-life," Triplett told Facing South. "Around my teenage years, I started questioning — how far does that go?"

Support for capital punishment, once seen as a necessary credential for politicians running on a tough-on-crime platform, has eroded in recent years as evidence has mounted that the death penalty is ineffective at driving down crime rates, unevenly and often arbitrarily applied, and that many innocent people have been sent to death row. According to Gallup, which has asked about the death penalty in its polls since the 1930s, 45 percent of Americans believe the death penalty is imposed unfairly, the highest level since Gallup began asking that question in 2000. In all, 41 percent of Americans now oppose the death penalty for a person convicted of murder — the highest level since 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia briefly struck down capital punishment.

But there's a deep partisan divide over the death penalty, one that makes its abolition an uphill battle in red states. In 2018, the Pew Research Center found that while just 35 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of independents support the death penalty for people convicted of murder, 77 percent of Republicans favor the policy. While that number might seem high, it represents a 10-point dip from 1996, when 87 percent of Republicans favored capital punishment. Support for the death penalty among self-identified independents, who make up 38 percent of the voting population, is down more than 27 percentage points over the same time period. 

The movement to abolish the death penalty continues to gain steam. New Hampshire became the latest state to abolish capital punishment earlier this year, with significant Republican support. Six other states — Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, and Washington — have gotten rid of the death penalty since 2009, two through court rulings declaring state capital punishment laws unconstitutional. Today, 21 states have rejected the death penalty by law, and four more have done so through governor-imposed moratoriums.

But every state in the South except West Virginia still has the death penalty. The region includes two of the three states with the highest death row populations: 349 people in Florida, and 218 in Texas. In Florida, 29 death row prisoners have had their charges dismissed since the 1970s, the most in the country.

Among the factors driving opposition to the death penalty are the dramatic racial disparities in its administration. According to a Facing South analysis of data compiled by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, 46 percent of the South's death row population is black, although black people make up less than 20 percent of the region's total population. Several studies, including one by the federal Government Accountability Office, have shown that murder cases with white victims are more likely to result in capital murder charges and the imposition of the death penalty than those with victims of another race. And all too often, capital trials occur without a true jury of one's peers: Recent high-profile cases in Mississippi and North Carolina have accused prosecutors of excluding black people from death penalty juries based on their race. 

"The death penalty continues to exist in the parts of America it exists in because of racism and revenge," said Kenneth Reams, the founder of Who Decides, a nonprofit that educates people about the history of the death penalty. He is also a current resident of Arkansas' death row; though the state's Supreme Court reversed his death sentence last year, he remains there pending further proceedings. "It's not just racism, but poverty. The death penalty affects people in our society who are uneducated and poor."

Preaching outside the choir

It's no accident that Conservatives Concerned's first national meeting was set for Louisiana. A coalition of groups from across that state's political spectrum recently came together to pass Amendment 2 overturning a Jim Crow-era law that allowed people to be convicted of felonies by non-unanimous juries. Alexander was part of that coalition, as was tea party Republican Rob Maness, a former U.S. Senate candidate in Louisiana and a retired Air Force colonel who sits on his parish's GOP executive committee. 

"We had to build a team of not just conservatives, but also independent and moderate-type folks, and then the very liberal side of the Democrats, and independents too, so across the spectrum of ideology," Maness told Facing South. "We were able to build that team, because [reversing the amendment] was the right thing to do."

The measure had support from the state Republican and Democratic parties, from a slew of criminal justice reform organizations, and from the Louisiana branch of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group that has pushed for criminal justice reform in other states as well. Advocates hope they can keep this coalition together to push for the abolition of the death penalty, either by way of another constitutional amendment or with a state statute.  

The upcoming meeting in New Orleans aims to connect Louisiana anti-death penalty conservatives with each other and with others like them around the country. It will also serve as a training ground to get other state-based movements up and running with sessions teaching advocates how to talk to legislators and how to carry out grassroots organizing targeted at conservatives. 

The attendees know their views are out of step with most Republicans; Maness said that if he decides to run for office again he's certain GOP voters will "hold me accountable" for not being sufficiently "law-and-order." But they hope to reach people around the South who might be predisposed to discount the arguments of liberals.

"If you're a Democrat you're preaching to the choir," said Alexander. "Where we need to make progress is with Republicans." 

That's been the focus in Tennessee, said Amy Lawrence, who leads the state's chapter of Conservatives Concerned. People who have been in conservative circles their entire life may not have thought about the death penalty from a pro-life lens, or may not be aware of the expense of sentencing someone to death, she said. 

"We still have some work to do," Lawrence said. "We have lawmakers who say, 'I get it, I understand that there are flaws with the death penalty, that it's an exorbitant cost, that it's an arbitrary system.'" There's still a stigma associated with being anti-death penalty in Republican circles, however, and some lawmakers fear that vocalizing their opposition to capital punishment could mean losing their seat, said Lawrence and other advocates.

But that's beginning to shift. In 10 states this year, three of them in the South, Republican legislators sponsored bills to repeal the death penalty. In Georgia, a bipartisan group of three Republican and three Democratic legislators introduced a bill in April that would abolish capital punishment and change the sentences of the state's 55 death row inmates to life without parole. Though it was introduced too late to advance this session, its timing was aimed to spark debate next year. In Louisiana, Republican state Sen. Dan Claitor put forward a constitutional amendment to get rid of the death penalty, but it was rejected by the legislative body. And in Kentucky, Republican House Majority Whip Chad McCoy introduced a bill to repeal the state's death penalty. Though it gained several co-sponsors, including other Republican state legislators, it died in committee.

"If we can get lucky enough to get one of the states in the South to seriously look at capital punishment, to simply put a moratorium on it, that would be a start," said Reams. "If we could get one state in the South to abolish it, I think it would open the door."