By David Montgomery
No one would ever question Dave Danielson’s credentials as a Republican. As a 17-year-old in his home state of New Hampshire, he led a local group of teenage Barry Goldwater supporters in 1964 and went on to vote for every Republican presidential candidate since.
He also shared the GOP’s support for the death penalty. But seven years ago, after winning election to the New Hampshire House of Representatives, Danielson re-examined that stance after a friend asked how he could reconcile state-authorized executions with his deeply ingrained belief in the sanctity of life. It was a dichotomy he’d never pondered, he recalled.
“I had never considered that conflict until he brought it up,” Danielson said.
After days of soul searching, he reversed course. “I just said I could not support the death penalty,” Danielson, 72, a retired marketing manager from Bedford, New Hampshire, recalled recently. “I came from one side of the coin to another.”
In decades past, the notion of a conservative Republican opposing the death penalty seemed largely counterintuitive. But a growing number of elected Republicans are now breaking with partisan orthodoxy to not only oppose the death penalty but also help lead efforts to repeal it in more than a half-dozen states, often in conflict with leaders and colleagues in their own party.
The repeal efforts, which in most cases would replace the death penalty with sentences of life without parole, reflect a steep two-decade decline in executions nationwide, as well as growing overall opposition to the practice.
Last week, the Democratic governor of California, Gavin Newsom, imposed a moratorium on executions in the nation’s most populous state, granting at least a temporary reprieve for all 737 condemned inmates on California’s death row.
Gavin acted even though voters in California twice rejected a death penalty repeal, in 2012 and in 2016.
President Donald Trump, who is calling for use of the death penalty against drug dealers, said in a tweet that he was “not thrilled” by the California moratorium, saying it shields “737 stone cold killers.” Death penalty supporters say the ultimate punishment gives closure to victims, helps prevent crime and is a just outcome for those who commit heinous offenses.
Death penalty loses support
Although as many as three-quarters of the nation’s Republicans still support the death penalty, according to polls, GOP lawmakers are increasingly aligning with Democrats to oppose capital punishment.
In New Hampshire, dozens of Republicans, including Danielson, voted in March for a death penalty repeal bill in the Democratic-led state House of Representatives. The state Senate, also controlled by Democrats, is widely expected to duplicate the House in ultimately passing House Bill 455 by a veto-proof margin.
Repeal bills with Republican sponsors have been introduced in at least seven other states this year. In solidly red Wyoming, a bipartisan repeal bill advanced well beyond expectations in the Republican-controlled legislature, passing the full House and a Senate committee before being killed by the full Senate.
A major factor behind changing public attitudes on the death penalty — including the shift among Republicans — stems from law enforcement advances and DNA science that have cleared wrongly convicted defendants, including 164 death row inmates who had been awaiting executions in 28 states.
Questions involving racial disparities and other issues have left Americans almost evenly split over whether the death penalty is being fairly applied, according to a 2018 Gallup Poll.
Republicans pushing repeal legislation cite hefty taxpayer costs, the death penalty’s disputed effectiveness as a deterrent, and the moral incongruity between Republicans’ “pro-life” positions and the legalized taking of a life. A strong libertarian strain also is reflected in conservative distrust of government-sponsored executions.
A 2012 study by the then-National Research Council, now called the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, found that “fundamental flaws” in previous research made it impossible to determine whether the death penalty “increases, decreases, or has no effect” on murder rates.
Numerous other studies have delved into the death penalty’s financial impact, concluding that capital punishment results in millions of dollars in extra costs because of longer trials, years of appeals, added legal expertise, sequestered juries, beefed up security on death rows and other factors. A Duke University study concluded that death penalty prosecutions cost North Carolina at least $11 million a year.
“Conservatives pride themselves on limited government, useful and effective application of tax dollars and protecting the sanctity of life,” said Hannah Cox, national manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, a project of Equal Justice USA, a Brooklyn-based advocacy organization. “When you look at the death penalty, it’s not doing any of those things. It’s a very big government program, it wastes millions and millions, and those resources are not spent on anything to deter crime.”
“Odds are we have already executed someone who’s innocent,” she added, “and odds are we’ll do it again.”
Her organization, which was launched in 2013 at the Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC, in Washington, D.C., has served as an umbrella for conservative opposition to the death penalty.
Executions peaked in 1999
Republican lawmakers this year have backed repeal efforts in Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri and Montana, as well as in New Hampshire, Wyoming and Washington state, where lawmakers want to statutorily bring the Evergreen State in line with a 2018 state Supreme Court ruling that struck down the death penalty there. Colorado state Sen. Kevin Priola is the solitary Republican sponsoring repeal legislation in his state.
Nationally, 25 people were executed and 42 were sentenced to death in 2018, compared with a peak of 98 executions in 1999 and more than 300 death sentences a year in the mid-1990s. The death penalty has been abolished or overturned in 20 states and remains in place in 30 others, although four states where it is still on the books — Colorado, Oregon, Pennsylvania and now California — are under moratoria by governors.
Public support for the death penalty also is at or near a four-decade low, according to surveys by the Gallup Poll and the Pew Research Center. Nearly 80 percent of Americans supported the death penalty in the late 1990s, but support was around the mid-50s in polls taken over the past two years. Public support stood at 49 percent in a 2016 Pew survey. (The Pew Research Center and Stateline both are funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.)
Seventy-seven percent of Republicans registered support for the death penalty in a 2018 Pew survey, a drop of 10 percentage points since 1996. During the same period, death penalty support tumbled by 36 percent points among Democrats, from 71 to 35 percent.
“We’re in the middle of a major change in the United States on the death penalty,” said Rob Dunham, executive director of the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center. The center, based in Washington, D.C., provides analysis and information and doesn’t take a position for or against the death penalty though it “is critical of the way it’s administered,” Dunham said.
“In the 1990s, the death penalty was a wedge issue,” Dunham said. “It was highly partisan, and any candidate [Democrat or Republican] who said he or she was opposed to the death penalty was facing almost certain electoral defeat. Now we’ve reached a stage where it appears to have little or no influence in statewide elections.”
Can Texas change its stance?
In many red states, there appears to be little or no evidence of Republican change of heart over the death penalty. In Texas, the largest of the red states and one that has made headlines in the past for high numbers of executions, Democratic state Rep. Jessica Farrar of Houston said she has had no Republican support for the death penalty repeal bill that she has introduced each session for nearly a decade.
But at the same time, Texas has followed the national trend of declining use of the death penalty, and there are signs that attitudes may be changing.
Texas accounted for more than half of all U.S. executions last year — 13 — but sentences there have nevertheless fallen from a peak of 48 death verdicts in 1999 to single digits in nine of the past 10 years.
The nationally publicized case of Texan Michael Morton, who was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2011 after serving nearly 25 years of a life sentence in the wrongful conviction of his wife’s death, also has heightened concerns.
“It keeps me up at night when I realize that there could be innocent people in our prisons and on death row,” said Republican state Rep. Jeff Leach, a conservative who is chairman of the Texas House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence.
Leach said he has confidence in the jury system and continues to support the death penalty but thinks an in-depth review of the penalty and a possible moratorium should “be on the table to ensure all of the death row inmates actually deserve to be there.”
‘It didn’t sit right with my heart’
In other states, some of those fighting to strike down the death penalty started out as supporters. Colby Coash, the former state senator in Nebraska who led a 2015 effort to repeal the state’s death penalty, said his change of heart came after some friends in his dormitory at the University of Nebraska invited him to go to a party outside the state prison the night of a scheduled execution.
“It was a pretty ugly scene,” Coash said, recalling how one somber group held candles in opposition to the execution while his group tailgated and drank beer as a band played.
“It was like New Year’s Eve, so we did a countdown” toward the midnight execution, Coash recalled. Afterward, he said, “it didn’t sit right with my heart. I’d been raised better than to celebrate a man’s death, to celebrate the end of a life.”
As a state senator in Nebraska’s unicameral legislature, Coash took the lead in pushing legislation in 2015 to repeal the death penalty. Although the legislature is officially nonpartisan, lawmakers are aligned with political parties, and Coash successfully built strong support among fellow Republicans who held the majority.
Legislative approval of the bill made Nebraska the first red state in more than 40 years to repeal the death penalty, but the measure ran into opposition from GOP Gov. Pete Ricketts, a staunch death penalty advocate. After the legislature overturned Ricketts’ veto, he responded by funding a petition drive for a 2016 public referendum that reinstated the death penalty.
In Wyoming, minority Democrats who had long opposed the death penalty turned to like-minded Republicans in a pragmatic effort to push the measure in the GOP-dominated legislature.
State Rep. Charles Pelkey, a leading Democrat who carried the repeal bill last year, said he recognized the importance of “letting Republicans take the lead” in 2019 if the bill were to have any hope of success.
“This is the farthest we’ve ever gotten,” Pelkey said. “Republicans are absolutely essential.”
The leader this year was Republican Rep. Jared Olsen, a 31-year Cheyenne lawyer whose family has been in Wyoming for five generations. Working with a broad coalition that included the League of Women Voters and the Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne, as well as Democratic allies, Olsen appealed heavily to libertarian sentiments by pointing out the $750,000 annual cost to maintain a death penalty system.
Other Republican efforts haven’t progressed as far. In neighboring Montana, Rep. Mike Hopkins of Missoula argued that his repeal bill would end a practice that was both expensive and inefficient, but the measure was rejected by a House committee. All 11 Republicans voted against it; all eight Democrats voted for it.
“Ironically enough,” said the Republican lawmaker, “the only thing that’s actually had the death penalty applied to it in Montana is my bill to repeal the death penalty.”
In New Hampshire, the legislature is now under Democratic control after the November elections, but Republicans have nevertheless played a substantial role in death penalty repeal efforts. The bill cleared the House on a vote of 279-88, with the support of 72 Republicans. Eighty-three Republicans and five Democrats voted against it. The Republican governor, Chris Sununu, has promised a veto, but the legislature has the votes to override him.
Republican Dave Danielson was among those who participated in the House debate, telling colleagues that the death penalty system was a needless burden on taxpayers. After the House vote, Danielson said he got a call from the friend who had questioned his earlier support of the death penalty. “I’m proud of you,” Danielson said the man told him.