The Conservative Case Against the Death Penalty

On November 6, the citizens of California will vote on a controversial referendum abolishing the death penalty.  If passed, Proposition 34 would make California the sixth state to do away with capital punishment in the past five years, sparing the lives of 723 inmates now awaiting execution in San Quentin Prison’s death row, the largest in the United States.

What is unusual in this instance is that the Catholic Church in California is helping to spearhead the drive against the death penalty.

At parishes throughout California in September and October, speaker after speaker have been calling for parishioners to help end capital punishment in the state.

One speaker, Kirk Bloodsworth, spent 12 years in prison and two on death row before he became the first death row inmate to be exonerated due to DNA evidence.  Another speaker is former San Quentin prison warden Jeanne Woodford who tells parishioners that she now opposes capital punishment because of the negative effects she saw it had on the good men and women who had to carry it out.

I’ve always been opposed to capital punishment, and for the most conservative of reasons:  I don’t believe any government should have the authority to take human life, at least not in a society, such as ours, that has the resources to build prisons.

This is a fundamentally conservative position because it rests upon the assumption that government is, by definition, made up of fallible human beings who frequently make mistakes – often horribly tragic mistakes.

As Pope John Paul II taught and the Catholic Church now incorporates into its official catechism, the death penalty is morally permissible, as an act of societal self-defense, in those societies without the resources to lock up dangerous criminals; but in modern western societies, it is ethically and legally indefensible.

Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent (CCC 2267).”

It’s not surprising that many self-proclaimed “progressives” support capital punishment (although many also oppose it).  They believe in and trust government to do the right thing.  That’s why Barack Obama and Bill Clinton are both supporters of capital punishment:  Obama led an effort in Illinois to restore the death penalty when numerous exonerations persuaded the Republican governor, George Ryan, to halt all executions and commute the sentences of everyone awaiting execution, giving most of them life in prison.

But what does surprise me is that so many alleged American conservatives, such as Mitt Romney, also support capital punishment, although that is changing.

Ann Coulter, for example, who I often find hilarious and agree with at least 50 percent of the time, recently wrote a column defending the death penalty. “Fifty-nine percent of Americans now believe that an innocent man has been executed in the last five years,” Ann writes disapprovingly. “There is more credible evidence that space aliens have walked among us than that an innocent person has been executed in this country in the past 60 years, much less the past five years.”

While Coulter and other death penalty supporters are correct that most condemned men and women are almost certainly guilty of heinous crimes, she is dead wrong that wrongful executions are rare.

From Jesus Christ on down through the ages, literally thousands of innocent people have been wrongly executed by incompetent and sometimes malicious government authorities.   DNA evidence has exonerated and released at least 15 death row inmates in the U.S. since 1992 alone.  Another 93 people charged with murder were exonerated by DNA testing.

The formerly prolife and now pro-abortion organization Amnesty International estimates that since 1973 over 130 people have been released from death rows in the U.S. due to evidence of their wrongful convictions.

In Texas, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 for allegedly murdering his three daughters by burning down his house.  Despite the fact that the Texas Forensic Science Commission found that the arson claims were doubtful and Willingham’s wife disputed the claim that Willingham had killed his daughters to cover up abuse allegations, Governor Rick Perry refused to grant a pardon to Willingham. To me, that fact alone was a reason not to support Perry for president and proof that he was still the big government Democrat he’s always been (when he supported Al Gore for president).

The only Republican candidate in 2012 to oppose the death penalty was Dr. Ron Paul who insists that the true conservative position is to oppose, not support, government executions:

“Over the years I’ve held pretty rigid to all my beliefs, but I’ve changed my opinion of the death penalty. For federal purposes I no longer believe in the death penalty. I believe it has been issued unjustly. If you’re rich, you get away with it; if you’re poor and you’re from the inner city you’re more likely to be prosecuted and convicted, and today, with the DNA evidence, there’ve been too many mistakes, and I am now opposed to the federal death penalty.”

Elsewhere, Paul explains that his opposition to the death penalty does not override his understanding of federalism, and thus, as president, he would not attempt to force the abolition of the death penalty on the states.  That is why he says he opposes the federal death penalty; that is the only death penalty a president has authority over.  However, in an interview with the Concord Monitor in August 2011, Dr. Paul made clear his opposition on principle:

“I don’t think it’s very good sign for civilization to still be invoking the death penalty. . . .

If you believe in the death penalty, what I really object to is the doctors participating in torture, and doctors who are there to make it smooth and sweet.

“Oh, let’s put him to sleep.” If it’s a death penalty, do it on Times Square, see ‘em get their head chopped off and see how all the people, see how much they like it, make ‘em look at it. I think it’s uncivilized.”

Increasingly, Catholics are coming to the same conclusion. 

Given the incompetence of government bureaucrats, the proven fact that innocent people have been executed, and the negative effects that executions have on the people who must carry them out, the only reasonable choice today is to abolish the death penalty.

In California, the latest Field Poll shows Proposition 34 behind in the polls, with 42% in favor, 45% opposed and 13% undecided.  When it comes to capital punishment, “liberal” California is not so liberal after all.  The only argument that appears to be winning converts is the financial one:  Capital punishment has cost the bankrupt state an estimated $4 billion since 1978.

The exception appears to be Catholics who increasingly oppose the death penalty. “We appeal to Californians to end a failed system of justice and choose life,” the Catholic bishops of California said in a joint statement issued September 27.  “Violence does not end violence. Killing in the name of the state will not end killing. The death penalty will not give us justice worthy of a good society.”


Robert Hutchinson studied philosophy as an undergraduate, moved to Israel to study Hebrew and earned an M.A. degree in Biblical studies. He is the author, most recently, of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Bible. He blogs at

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