After decades of defending capital punishment, some conservative Republicans are walking away from the death penalty.
In Kentucky, lawmakers such as Rep. David Floyd, a Nelson County Republican, now oppose executions on grounds of fiscal responsibility and pro-life values.
For Floyd and others, the decision pits two traditional Republican planks against each other: a tough-on-crime, law-and-order platform versus a conservative fiscal approach.
In red states both big and small, bills to abolish the death penalty are becoming more common.
“There’s been a complete change of discussion nationally,” said Marc Hyden, the national advocacy coordinator for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. “These are some very strong feelings of fiscal responsibility and pro-life views.”
Floyd’s bill to abolish the state’s death penalty has never made it past committee, but there are signs that more Republican support could help turn the tide in their favor.
The Bluegrass State has executed only three people since 1976. The costs of capital punishment prosecution, defense and court proceedings run about $10 million each year, according to the Department of Public Advocacy. Because of a court injunction and a shortage of lethal injection drugs, none of Kentucky’s death row inmates can be executed right now.
Former Republican State Rep. Bob Heleringer, who represented Jefferson County from 1980 to 2002, is working with the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty to change the minds of conservative Kentuckians.
His pitch? Conservative leaders and voters should support eliminating “a drain on the budget.”
He believes some politicians are afraid to oppose the death penalty publicly because they fear their constituents will not re-elect them.
“Basically we’re cowards,” Heleringer said about legislators. “We wish all votes were about as controversial as turning right on red… At some point you’ve got to take a stand.”
When Floyd brought House Bill 203 to the Judiciary Committee in March, he was joined by Hyden — a former National Rifle Association field director — and former Jefferson County Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Joe Gutmann. Each of the three men used to support the death penalty.
Hyden said many conservatives who support the death penalty are holding onto the same theoretical view of capital punishment that he once did: one without wrongful convictions, and one that actually executes those it sentences to die.
“Capital punishment really is the quintessential big, broken government program.”
Gutmann said he spent 20 years prosecuting people for some of the state’s most heinous crimes and argued for death sentences.
He changed his mind after considering high rates of reversals and exonerations in death penalty cases, including the exoneration of Kentucky’s youngest death row inmate, Larry Osborne, in 2002. Osborne was acquitted in a retrial at the age of 22, three years after he was originally sentenced to die.
At the legislative hearing in March, Floyd, Hyden, Gutmann and retired Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Stephen Ryan didn’t convince the committee. The bill was voted down 9-8.
Though conservatives are warming to it, the push to kill the death penalty — considered an issue aligned with liberals — isn’t necessarily embraced by every Kentucky Democrat, either.
Reps. Gerald Watkins and Johnny Bell both said life without parole is not a harsh enough punishment for criminals who murder innocent people.
“For me, when it comes to the death penalty, I think about what you have to do to get (on death row),” Bell, of Warren County, said at the same legislative hearing. “Whether it takes longer and costs a little bit more on taxes doesn’t bother me.”
In the past year, GOP lawmakers proposed bills abolishing the death penalty in nine other states, including Utah, Kansas and Missouri.
Gallup polls show support for the death penalty among Republican voters has decreased since the 1990s, to 76 percent in 2014 from 85 percent in 1994.
In states like Nebraska, where the legislature passed a bill abolishing the death penalty in 2015, conservatives were a crucial part of the bill’s success.
“What happened in Nebraska is just the beginning of a nationwide trend,” said Colby Coash, a Republican senator from Nebraska who helped convince fellow conservative legislators to abolish capital punishment. “It’s only a matter of time.”
Nebraska was not the first state to act. Six other states had abolished capital punishment since 2007.
Nebraska’s death penalty system mirrored Kentucky’s in a few ways.
Both states had the death penalty on the books, but each state only executed three people since the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty constitutional in 1976. Both states also had at least one inmate who lived on death row since the early 1980s without getting executed. Nine of Kentucky’s 32 death row inmates were sentenced more than 30 years ago, but have avoided execution through the lengthy appeals process.
Underscoring the contentious nature of the death penalty debate, Nebraskans angry over the new law barring executions garnered enough support to get a ballot measure repealing it. It will go to voters in November.
Will Wright, KyCIR’s summer fellow, can be reached at email@example.com and (724) 344.6945.