The Conservative Case for Abolition

A growing number of conservatives are speaking out against the death penalty.  Their voices – from noted conservative writers to political office holders and candidates to judges appointed by conservative Presidents – sound familiar and time-tested conservative themes in their denunciation of the death penalty.  These themes include the risk of executing the innocent, excessive costs, the principle of limited government, fundamental fairness, morality and the importance of being consistently pro life.

Here are just a few of these statements:


“Finally, this recounting of a multifaceted but, fortunately, not fatal failure of the criminal justice system buttresses the conservative case against the death penalty: Its finality leaves no room for rectifying mistakes, but it is a government program, so….” – George Will, in an April 16, 2013 column about the documentary film “The Central Park Five.”

“More often than we want to recognize, some innocent defendants have been convicted and sentenced to death.” – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, nominated by President Reagan (In a speech to Minnesota attorneys on July 2, 2001).

“I believe the Party platform calls for the death penalty and I’m personally opposed to the death penalty. Having clerked for an Illinois Supreme Court Justice, I know firsthand, and unfortunately, we have put innocent people to death. Life is too precious to do that.”  – John Archer, the Republican challenger in Iowa’s second congressional district:

“As governor of New Mexico, I was a bit naïve and I did not think the government made mistakes with regard to the death penalty. I came to realize that they do. I don’t want to put one innocent person to death to punish 99 who are guilty.” – Gary Johnson, Presidential candidate in the 2012 elections and former governor of New Mexico, August 21, 2011: Interview with Gary Johnson by Scott Holleran

“We conservatives cannot afford to let our justified outrage at unrepentant killers make us morally indifferent to the deadly and irrevocable peril in which society places the truly guiltless on trial for their lives. At some point in this death-penalty debate, the sanctity of innocent life demands that men and women of conservative conscience have to say: Enough.” – Rod Dreher, conservative columnist (New York Post, May 5, 2001).

“My own view on capital punishment is that it is morally justified, but that the government is often so inept and corrupt that innocent people might die as a result. Thus, I personally oppose capital punishment.” – Edward H. Crane, founder and president of the CATO Institute (“Politics: The Cato Institute.” (visited August 18, 2010): citing article appearing on, August 25, 2003).

“[O]nce you kill the accused, you can’t really turn back the clock. If the system turns out to be wrong, as it does on occasion, saying you are sorry doesn’t do much good.” – John Feehery, Republican strategist and pundit, who used to support the death penalty (“Is the death penalty defensible?” The Hill, September 1, 2009).


“The biggest government waste: The death penalty. An individual death-penalty case could climb to $100 million, much of it spent at the litigation level. Also, DNA evidence has exonerated nearly 300 death-row inmates. At least 39 of those inmates have been executed despite evidence of innocence. Biggest government waste.” – John McLaughlin, creator and host of “The McLaughlin Group,” a weekly public affairs program (on an episode broadcast January 2, 2011).

“Society is not equipped to handle death penalty cases because of resources. Large law firms are not willing at this stage to take these cases on, at a cost of many thousands of dollars, in order to make sure that if the public wants the death penalty, it is not administered with arbitrariness and caprice.”- Kenneth Starr, Former U.S. Special Prosecutor (San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 17, 2006).

“We’ve had the death penalty since 1994, and we continue to pay for the process with little results…But we continue to cut the programs that could prevent these types of crimes.” – Kansas State Senator Carolyn McGinn, Chair of the Natural Resources Committee and Joint Committee on Energy and Environmental Policy (Ron Sylvester, “From a budget standpoint, is death row worth it?” The Witchita Eagle. October 20, 2009).

“I have been a Republican for many years. I wrote the ballot initiative that reinstated the death penalty in California in 1978. I believe those who commit willful and intentional murder should be locked up and severely punished in the interest of public safety. I made a terrible mistake 33 years ago, but it is one that can be corrected. People are working hard to give voters the opportunity in the next election to replace the death penalty with life in prison without possibility of parole. If given that chance, I call upon all Californians to join me in voting yes to abolish capital punishment.” –Don Heller, read full statement:

“In today’s world, the death penalty is so infrequently used that I don’t believe it is any kind of a deterrent,” – Utah Rep. Steve Handy  – District 16, Republican

Limited Government

“We, Virginians like to think of ourselves as conservative.  Conservative can be defined as resisting change or innovation or moderate, prudent, and cautious, but when we execute more people than any other state, (except perhaps Texas) is that conservative or reactionary?…” [full statement] – VA Delegate Harvey Morgan (R – 98th district), who testified against expanding the death penalty in the VA General Assembly, Feb. 10, 2009

“Capital punishment, like the rest of the criminal justice system, is a government program, so skepticism is in order.” – George Will, conservative columnist (“DNA, The Death Penalty and Horrifying Mistakes”, by George F. Will, The Washington Post April 6, 2000).

“For those who believe in the virtue of limited government and criticize roundly when government does not work well, capital punishment does not meet fundamental conservative standards. Not only is it applied arbitrarily, but our judicial system cannot even figure out how to examine it properly.” – Marshall Hurley, Republican attorney who has been general counsel to the NC Republican Party and a delegate to the Republican National Convention (Greensboro News & Record, July 27, 2003).

“Conservatives have every reason to believe the death penalty system is no different from any politicized, costly, inefficient, bureaucratic, government-run operation, which we conservatives know are rife with injustice. But here the end result is the end of someone’s life. In other words, it’s a government system that kills people.” – Richard Viguerie, known as one of the creators of the modern conservative movement (“When Governments Kill: A conservative argues for abolishing the death penalty” Sojourners Magazine).

“How is it that conservatives generally believe in ‘life,’ but are very willing to allow a corrupt and hugely flawed court system to condemn someone to death?” – Larry Klayman, former prosecutor and founder of the conservative foundation Judicial Watch (“Confusion among conservatives,” WorldNet Daily).


“Imposition of the death penalty represents the pointless and needless extinction of life with only marginal contributions to any discernible social or public purposes. A penalty with such negligible returns to the State [is] patently excessive and cruel and unusual punishment violative of the Eighth Amendment.” – U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, nominated by President Ford (Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35, 2008).

“[I]f any basis can be discerned for the selection of these few to be sentenced to die, it is the constitutionally impermissible basis of race… I simply conclude that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments cannot tolerate the infliction of a sentence of death under legal systems that permit this unique penalty to be so wantonly and so freakishly imposed.” – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, nominated by President Eisenhower (Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 1972).

“From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death. I feel morally and intellectually obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed. It is virtually self-evident to me now that no combination of procedural rules or substantive regulations ever can save the death penalty from its inherent constitutional deficiencies.” – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, nominated by President Nixon (Callins v. Collins, 510 U.S. 1141, 1994).

“It is horrible that in a civilized country the arbitrary imposition of revenge continues to exist … We are completely out of step. We should be ashamed.”  – John J. Gibbons, former Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, nominated by President Nixon (Chris Hedges, “Ex-Judge vs. the Government’s Law-Free Zone”, published February 6, 2004).

As capital punishment studies have shown, whether or not you are sentenced to death often has little to do with the crime committed and everything to do with your race, where you live, and who prosecutes your case.  This is especially the case in Virginia, which is one of the most pro-death penalty states in the country… [read more] – John W. Whitehead, Attorney and author, February 16, 2010

“The costs can’t be borne by smaller counties particularly, so if the crime occurs in a large county you might be charged with the death penalty, in a smaller county you’re not. That raises some significant questions about fairness.” – Greg Zoeller (Rep.), Attorney General of Indiana (Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, Nov. 21, 2010).

“There is not a single person on death row that had a fully funded private defense. If you’re rich, you’re not going to get capital punishment – period.” – Mark James, Republican Nevada state legislator (Nevada Appeal, April 21, 2001).

“I think Capital punishment’s day is done in this county. I don’t think it’s fairly applied.” – Oliver North, conservative columnist, best-selling author, combat-decorated Marine, former US Counter-Terrorism Coordinator (Des Moines Registrar, June 12, 2000).

Morality/Pro-Life Consistency

“I think a [death penalty] moratorium would indeed be very appropriate.” –Rev. Pat Robertson

“That’s because I believe that inside many Americans lies certain uneasiness about capital punishment. If taking a life is wrong, then it’s wrong even when the state sanctions it. Of course justice dictates a fitting punishment for murderers and the Old Testament does discuss an eye for an eye. But if there were a better way to punish people that commit crimes against humanity – Americans might rally behind it.” Bill O’Reilly (“Work or die,” World Net Daily 06/14/2001)

“I came to the conclusion the only vote I could live with was a ‘no’ vote on the death penalty in Kansas. I could not, in my mind, be pro-life and pro death penalty.” – Tim Emert, former republican Kansas state legislator (“Former Kansas State Senator Urges Legislators to Enact Moratorium,” Associated Press, January 22, 2004).

“Life is a gift from God. It isn’t up to us to take it away. Whether you take an innocent life of a baby, or of a person who has committed a heinous act, it is still an act at our hands, and it makes us a less caring and less sensitive society.” – Tom Neuville, leading Republican committee member on the Minnesota’s Senate Judiciary Committee, opposing Governor Pawlenty’s efforts to reinstate the death penalty (Minneapolis Star Tribune, December 7, 2003).

“My fundamental problems with the death penalty began as a result of my personal concern, echoed by many on all sides of the political spectrum, that it was inconsistent for one to be ‘pro-life’ on the one hand and condone government execution on the other… The time has come for us to get beyond government executions.” – Christian Josi, Executive Director of the American Conservative Union and consultant on the campaign of former Vice President Dan Quayle (CACP News Notes, November 26, 2001).

“I’m opposed to the death penalty not because I think it’s unconstitutional… but it really is a moral view, and that is that the taking of life is not the way to handle even the most significant of crimes… I think we have to be careful in executing final judgment. The one thing my faith teaches me–I don’t get to play God. I think you are shortcutting the whole process of redemption…I don’t want to be the person that stops that process from taking place.” – Jay Sekulow, Chief Counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice (January 2010 interview with Barry Lynn).

“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… The creeds of the church say that life is to be protected all along, from natural birth to natural death.” – Ohio Rep. Terry Blair