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Only Conservatives Can End the Death Penalty

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Posted on Sep 25, 2011
CA Corrections

By E.J. Dionne, Jr.

How can we end the death penalty in the United States?

Every so often, one capital case receives wide attention and makes a public spectacle of the American machinery of death. Last week, it was the controversy over Troy Davis, who was executed in Georgia after years of impassioned argument, organizing and litigation.

I honor those who worked so hard to save Davis’ life because they forced the nation to deal with all of the uncertainties, imperfections and, in some instances, brutalities of the criminal justice system.

Yet after all the tears are shed and after the last candlelight vigil ends with a prayer, the repeal of capital punishment is still a political question. Can the politics of this question change? The answer is plainly yes.

It’s hard to imagine now, but in 1966, more Americans opposed the death penalty than supported it—by 47 percent to 42 percent. But the crime wave that began in the late 1960s and the sense that the criminal justice system was untrustworthy sent support for capital punishment soaring. By 1994, 80 percent of Americans said they favored the death penalty and only 16 percent were opposed.

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Since then, the numbers have softened slightly. Over the last decade, the proportion of Americans declaring themselves against capital punishment has bumped around between 25 percent and 32 percent. The mild resurgence of opposition—caused by a decline in violent crime and by investigations raising doubts about the guilt of some prisoners on death row—has opened up political space for action.

Forgive me, fellow liberals, but we’re not going to be the ones who lead this fight. Too many Democratic politicians remember how the death penalty was used in campaigns during the 1980s and ’90s, notably by George H.W. Bush against Michael Dukakis in 1988. They’re still petrified of looking “soft” on crime.

Moreover, winning this battle will require converting Americans who are not liberals. The good news is that many of our fellow citizens are open to persuasion. Gallup’s own polling shows that support for capital punishment drops sharply when respondents are offered the alternative of “life imprisonment, with absolutely no possibility of parole.” When Gallup presented this option in its 2010 survey, only 49 percent still chose the death penalty; 46 percent preferred life without parole.

And a survey last year for the Death Penalty Information Center by Lake Research Partners showed that if a variety of alternatives were offered to respondents (including life without parole plus restitution to victims’ families), hard support for the death penalty could be driven down to 33 percent.

If a majority is open to persuasion, the best persuaders will be conservatives—particularly the overlapping groups of religious conservatives and opponents of abortion—who have moral objections to the state-sanctioned taking of life or see the grave moral hazard involved in the risk of executing an innocent person.

There have always been conservatives who opposed the death penalty, but perhaps now their voices will be heard. In Ohio this summer, state Rep. Terry Blair, a Republican and a staunch foe of abortion, declared flatly: “I don’t think we have any business in taking another person’s life, even for what we call a legal purpose or what we might refer to as a justified purpose.”

Last week, Don Heller, who wrote the 1978 ballot initiative that reinstated the death penalty in California, explained in the Los Angeles Daily News why he had changed his mind. “Life without parole protects public safety better than a death sentence,” he wrote. “It’s a lot cheaper, it keeps dangerous men and women locked up forever, and mistakes can be fixed.”

The most moving testimony against Troy Davis’ execution came from a group of former corrections officials who, as they wrote, “have had direct involvement in executions.”

“No one has the right to ask a public servant to take on a lifelong sentence of nagging doubt, and for some of us, shame and guilt,” they said. “Should our justice system be causing so much harm to so many people when there is an alternative?”

We live in an unreasonable time when political ideology has built a thick wall that blocks us from acknowledging that some of the choices we face are tragic. Perhaps we can make an exception in this case and have a quiet conversation about whether our death-penalty system really speaks for our best selves. And I thank those conservatives, right-to-lifers, libertarians and prison officials who, more than anyone else, might make such a dialogue possible.


E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
   
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group


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By BeReal, September 27, 2011 at 8:08 am Link to this comment

@DaEggman And all that has what to do with the Death Penalty? Perhaps you meant to post it on another article .. like perhaps the Wall Street Sit-In?

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By DaEggman, September 26, 2011 at 7:16 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is a poorly organized event. If this is considered by most to be the epicenter of the global financial crisis, where are the speakers, Nader, Warren (glad to see Chris Hedges, as always) the 10’s of thousands of protesters, the organization, the spreading out of people attending so you are full, streets are packed and unusable, everyone sitting down at 8am and 5pm or 3pm or whenever these people are wanting to get somewhere. block garage entrances, sit 30 people deep, it would take hours to get everyone out. Walk around in suits and suddenly sit down at a given time..where is the imagination, the anger, the brains. You are dealing with a highly motivated, wealthy and articulate, not to mention intelligent chunk of the people…where are your people? You can’t send a heard of buffoons into Wall St. You need to be as smart or smarter, use different tactics every couple of days, keep people on their toes, force the police through non-violent means to become violent and videotape it all…You need to show who and where the violence stems from, these things need to be investigated to find out who pulled the “trigger” and link it back to the people you are protesting. Turning the protest into a Grateful Dead parking lot scene is exactly what these cretons want, they can castrate you in the media, or just simply ignore you.

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By BeReal, September 26, 2011 at 6:06 pm Link to this comment

Seems the conservatives would much rather have a quick ending, even if it means innocent people are put to death, than pay for their upkeep for decades. Of course they would much rather sick people would just hurry up and die too, and old people, and children who need care of one sort or another, EXCEPT those fetuses! They want to force every woman who becomes pregnant to bear the child, so that they can ignore it until it is eligible for the military. Unfortunately, after serving in the armed forces and being injured, the Conservatives don’t want to pay for their rehabilitation either. And this is the party that is PRO LIFE??? Schizo is more like it!

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examinator's avatar

By examinator, September 26, 2011 at 4:12 pm Link to this comment

Blogdog,
Sadly it isn’t that simple. Jurisdictional fights tend to be messy and the Fed tends to lose out. This is especially true about back lash from ‘conservatives’ state rights and all.
Also given it’s a capital case I think he needed grounds. I’m not sure he can ‘commute’ sentences in state, capital cases either.
It seems to me that you and many are disaffected with Obama more on your own expectations than reality.
Sure there are things he didn’t change but in his position he may have had to trade them off to get other ‘more beneficial’ bills through…notwithstanding fact that aren’t public.

Let’s be clear here I’m no ‘gee wiz’ fan of his, the peace prize was premature, Gitmo and the secrecy etc are very disappointing. however, unrealistic expectations aside he leads a better cabinet than the Neocoms lead by Cheney/bush one, Not to mention Hillary.
If anything it the system that is clearly broken…one that constrains a good prez from being great. Too much money out there to ensure that he doesn’t.
Finally it’s only the Republicans that can grow some and stand up to their factions and make ‘capital retribution’ go away.
Having said that the problem is they simply don’t want to give up the advantage that it engenders i.e. the emotional differentiation.

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By Hasapiko, September 26, 2011 at 3:06 pm Link to this comment

To stevepesceca,
You say you have read “quite a bit” about this case yet your discussion of the case is not coherent. For example you say it is a fact that Davis “shot down a man in cold blood” earlier in the evening and that this act “is largely uncontested” when actually that act is highly disputed. What you fail to discuss is that the so-called witnesses to both acts were a bunch of low-life guys and gals with criminal records being coerced into testifying by police and that apart from their testimony there is no hard evidence linking Davis with the murder. Not DNA, not the murder weapon, nada.
The real issue which you won’t discuss but which is very germane is that in this country poor people of color have time and again been victimized by a society that considers them, together with Vietnamese, Cambodians, Iraqis, Filipinos as of lesser worth than middle class white folk probably like yourself.
And the point of it is that until that well-proven perception is altered, there should be no death penalty.

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By ron hansing, September 26, 2011 at 2:46 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I suggest everyone read the wikipedia account of the troy davis proceedings.

The evidence is strongly compelling that he was guilty.

The question I ask: if seven witnesses recanted their testimony, why didn’t the defense pro bono high priced attorneys call them as witnesses to the 2010 federal hearing?

Perhaps is was because they did not want to testify since it would mean that they committed perjury.

Don’t argue that he was innocent… argue the morality of capital punishment.

Capital punishment demeans us as a people… and likewise applies to Brewer who was executed the same day in Texas…  without the benefits of sobbing mourners, high price lawyers, and charges that he was innocent.

Ron hansing 9.26.11

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By Marian Griffith, September 26, 2011 at 2:15 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

@blogdog
I am curious which word Obama should have said to have magically end capital punishment in the USA?

Not to mention that half the time people are complaining that the president is dictating too much and half the time they apparently want a dictator?

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By ZenBowman, September 26, 2011 at 12:51 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

1) Get rid of the death penalty
2) Get rid of “hate crime” legislation, all violent
crimes are equally bad, beating up a white person is
just as bad as beating up a black dude
3) End the war on drugs

Voila, 100x better legal system

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By Marilyn LaCourt, September 26, 2011 at 11:49 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Irony:
We authorize medically licensed people to kill people who do not want to die,
but if a medically licensed person kills someone who does want to die that person
will go to jail.
I’m thinking Jack Kavorkian here.

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By stevepesceca, September 26, 2011 at 9:15 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

First off, I am stunned by how all you guys are sheeping along with the contrived media publicity narrative that Georgia was racist and Troy Davis was innocent. I do believe Georgia have officials who are racist.  And I would even accept the idea that the cop killing evidence was embellished. I have unfortunately read quite a bit on this and listened to the actual current attorneys speak about this.  And they were not even arguing for a retrial of the first shooting earlier in the evening where Troy shot down another man in cold blood.  I’m not sure why you guys are willing to ignore that fact.  What is being argued, by this high priced law firm doing pro-bono work for publicity and succeeding wildly, is that the case which brought the death penalty for murdering a cop was worth retrying (and it was re-re-re-reviewed all the way to the supreme court—which if I was a schmuck from Georgia I would feel like I was given a pretty fair hearing to have the highest court in the land review my case.). Even if you presume, and you have zero knowledge of lawyers if you do, that Troy Davis was innocent of the cop killing based on a very big and high priced law firm managing to stir the pot against some hayseed district attorney’s office without the constraints of evidence rules nor the other side having a way of fighting back since the case has been over for 20 years, you still have to get past the fact that it’s largely uncontested that Davis shot another man in cold blood earlier that evening. But that doesn’t fit the media narrative, so it’s ignored.  Troy Davis is a murderer.  That’s what he is.  He’s not a sweet innocent victim of racism.  He’s not this angel the press wants to paint him as.  Frankly, it’s easy to confuse jurors after the fact when you can present all kinds of evidence in public without having to contend with the other side. 

Regarding the death penalty, I oppose it, but I strangely don’t remember you decrying the execution on the same night of the white supremacist in Texas who dragged a black man behind his car until he was dead.  Did I miss your column about that?  If you didn’t write a column about him, you’re being hypocritical to use Troy Davis as an argument against the death penalty. 

Capital Punishment should be opposed on both a practical and philosophical basis.  But it should not be linked to the fate of an individual murderer.  That cheapens the discussion and makes it actually about racism or a kind of suspicion that southerners shouldn’t be allowed to have courts.  Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is not in Georgia.  Were they racist?  Then make that case.  If not, then get off this.

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By SoTexGuy, September 26, 2011 at 5:24 am Link to this comment

The author is right.. and he’s not the first to say it. I watched a McNeil/Lehrer talk
years ago where the guests (the usual left-right match-up) explained this.. Capital
punishment was an issue the liberals had completely lost, actually conceded, to
the so-called right. And only the owners of the policy could make any changes.

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By m@earth, September 25, 2011 at 9:14 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This perhaps might be the time that the Christians of the country speak up and
out from the true prophetic voice contained within their faith, and not the
corrupted and Constantine one so eagerly pushed forward by the cowards of the
political right and accepted the meek and the lamb like who show up, say the
word, and listen, and LEAVE.
Faith is not supposed to be easy.  When it is easy.  It is corrupt.  And.  If not now. 
When?  Now is the time it demands difficult decisions and the love to stand up
and to make them.

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mrfreeze's avatar

By mrfreeze, September 25, 2011 at 9:13 pm Link to this comment

gerard - You are absolutely correct; however, I’d like to add that, in spite of all the self-congratulations Americans give themselves about being SO righteous, we have become a people whose heart is as black and blood-thirsty as any barbarian people.

I honestly believe there’s a seething self-hatred right under the surface of America and executions are nothing but red meat for many people.

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By gerard, September 25, 2011 at 8:40 pm Link to this comment

It is quite a stretch to see how conservatives—or people of any persuasion for
that matter—are going to see the death penalty as “a grave (no pun intended)
moral hazard in taking the life of an innocent person” when most of us are so
willing to sign on for endless wars here and there which take the lives of tens of
thousands of innocent persons (even babies and children) on a regular basis.

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By Silenus, September 25, 2011 at 8:33 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Then it’s not going to end.

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blogdog's avatar

By blogdog, September 25, 2011 at 7:56 pm Link to this comment

the President of the United States could have stopped this with one word and it
would have impacted none politically - a spineless puppet POTUS, plain and
simple

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