A Matter of Principle: Why Conservatives Should Oppose the Death Penalty

From The Observer's Token Conservative


The State of Texas executed Charlie Brooks for the crime of murder on Dec. 7, 1982. The method used in Huntsville that day was the first ever of its kind: a lethal injection. Brooks’ execution was also the first in Texas following the reinstatement of the death penalty by the Supreme Court in 1976, breaking a 16-year hiatus.

The case against Brooks, as with so many capital cases, remains ambiguous. It was never clear whether Brooks actually carried out the cold-blooded killing. His friend, Woody Lourdes, may have pulled the trigger instead; neither would say. Woody got a different sentence. He served 11 years of his 40-year sentence and was paroled in 1989.

Brooks was black. Drugs were involved. The question of whether he committed the murder, as in a surprising number of cases, was not deemed especially relevant.

Since then, Texas has executed 447 prisoners. This is quadruple the number of any other state. In 2009, half of the nation’s executions took place in Texas.

These statistics will leave death penalty advocates unfazed. They see it as a form of justice against unmitigated evil. Opponents see all of the elements that make execution so vile: It is meted out mostly to blacks, it is handed down capriciously and it has never been proven to be a deterrent.

Not surprisingly, this division is political. Democrats largely oppose the death penalty, while Republicans mostly embrace it. But if we leave political parties aside, and ask ourselves what one might expect based on conservative principles, a very different picture emerges.

Conservatives true to their values should oppose the death penalty.

When we give to the state the ultimate power over a person, the total control over their life or death, we cede to the government an authority that is wholly at odds with conservative principles. If, as conservatives maintain, that the power of the state should never exceed what is necessary for its minimal functions, isn’t it obvious that the death penalty violates that principle? And since it is in the nature of power that it seeks its own expansion (i.e. “power corrupts . . .”), wouldn’t one want to restrict the government’s power over individuals?

Once a state has the power of life and death, it can exercise that authority according to whatever laws it enacts. It works that way in the other countries that still allow the death penalty: China, North Korea, Somalia, and most Muslim nations. We could, and sometimes do, determine that a crime against the state, such as treason and sedition, is an offense punishable by death. What true conservative would sanction this kind of state-determined authority? Not one. Why then do our “conservative” leaders — yes, I’m looking at you, Gov. Rick Perry—feel that the State of Texas should be accorded this kind of power? You may or may not believe in rehabilitation, but do you genuinely believe that state-sponsored executions conform to a conservative viewpoint? Death allows for no rehabilitation. And it also allows for no reconsideration. This matters not just because we may in fact have been wrong in our judgment and have put an innocent person to death. It may matter even more because we have given the state power in accordance with laws—laws we may later deem immoral. When we execute a person, we not only “take their life,” we commit ourselves to the ultimate authority of the state.

On Dec. 29, 2009, we learned that a British citizen was put to death by the Chinese government for smuggling drugs into that country. The court reportedly met for just 30 minutes before arriving at their verdict. They were, presumably, acting according to Chinese law. The world reacted with outrage.

Texas, not surprisingly, is no stranger to the execution of foreign nationals. Jose Medellin died by lethal injection last year for the rape and murder of a teenage girl. Aside from a crime’s brutality, or whether rehabilitation is possible, or whether guilt or innocence is firmly established, an execution precludes all further discussion. It does this because we have accorded to the state an authority that only the most repressive of regimes reserves for themselves.

Texas could strike a great blow for conservative principles by distancing itself from the most repressive of government action. That our governor is impervious to this argument says a great deal about the distance between populism and principle—a subject that we will have ample opportunity to revisit.