We spoke to Marc Hyden about his work reforming the criminal justice system — and shattering stereotypes about how conservatives view the death penalty.
While we live in a politically divided country, it might be a surprise to learn that Americans with vastly different perspectives share similar views on the death penalty.
Among coastal liberals, there is the assumption that conservatives all believe in the same things: guns, God and hating the federal government. But on the death penalty, which was once a wedge issue between Democrats and Republicans, over the past decade, there has evolved more bipartisan opposition.
Each group may have come to the decision by different avenues and at different speeds, but both have arrived at the same conclusion that capital punishment should be repealed. This has been the position of the left-wing for decades, and now a group launched in 2013 at the Conservative Political Action Conference is taking it to red states across the U.S.
This group shattering many stereotypical beliefs is Conservatives Concerned About The Death Penalty (CCATDP). It is a project of the Equal Justice USA initiative, which works nationally to reform the criminal justice system. Marc Hyden, a born-and-bred Southerner who previously worked for the National Rifle Association (NRA), is the national advocacy coordinator.
Hyden spoke with TheBlot Magazine recently about the group’s work, which aims to convince all 50 state legislatures of the need to repeal the death penalty. In 2015, Nebraska became the most recent red state to abolish the death penalty, but 31 others still have execution laws on the books.
Marc Hyden of CCATDP. (BBC photo)
Hyden said CCATDP’s positions are informed by deeply-held conservative values and that he was previously a supporter of capital punishment. He described the group as “a national network of conservatives and some libertarians who just believe the death penalty is inconsistent with our core principles.”
Hyden illuminated those principles and added that opposition to state-sanctioned execution does not fly in the face of those beliefs. In fact, he says, those beliefs support the position against capital punishment.
“[It’s] not pro-life, fiscally responsible or representative of limited government,” he said. “It fails to deter crime, harms murder victims’ friends and family members.”
Liberals who have grudgingly held onto an antiquated Yosemite Sam-like, gun-toting, send-’em-all-to-the-chair version of red-state voters might want to hold onto their hats because there’s more. Hyden and CCTADP are busting these archetypal versions of conservatives as a monolithic group that thinks with singular focus and a hive mind.
“I used to support the death penalty for a long time,” Hyden said. “I’m a conservative, and for the longest time, I thought that’s what conservatives were supposed to do. Once I started examining it and comparing it to the principles that I hold dear, I found there was no leg to stand on.”
Hyden said that after completing a “cost-benefit analysis,” he came away with a changed opinion. “It’s undeniable the problems the death penalty has,” he said.
After much thought, “it was glacial for me,” the conclusion was hard to avoid because “perhaps the government shouldn’t execute citizens,” he said. “What benefit do you get?”
Nationally, opinions among conservatives on the death penalty are changing. In the past decade, support for the death penalty among Republicans fell 10 points and 17 points over the past 20 years, respectively.
“I’m very excited about how the national narrative is changing,” Hyden said. “More conservatives are taking a stand.”
Arguments used to support the death penalty range. Some proponents believe it is a deterrent to violent crime. But Hyden and CCATDP cite a 2009 study, which found that 88 percent of criminologists surveyed disagree with that rationale.
Hyden also argues that along with the death penalty come unintended consequences that negatively affect states. He contends that the trials re-traumatize victims’ families, are far too costly and that the danger of giving jurors the ultimate responsibility of choosing life or death for defendants is too much of a risk to take. As shown by the emergence of DNA technology and its use in the courtroom, witnesses, jurors and victims are all — by their very human nature — imperfect and can make mistakes.
“I don’t think it can be effective as a deterrent or to serve murder victims’ friends and family members the way it’s run now,” Hyden said. “A program designed to kill guilty U.S. citizens, it has to be perfect because there is zero margin for error.” He added that those family members are often called to testify multiple times. “That can be very traumatizing because they live some of the worst moments of their lives over and over again.”
Capital murder trials are also much more time-consuming than life-without-parole proceedings. Therefore their length, the drawn-out appeals process and legal wrangling also take a huge bite out of state coffers.
“The costs are just astounding,” Hyden said. “Colorado found that each individual capital trial is at least six times longer than life-without-parole trials. There’s more motions, more witnesses, more attorneys, and that’s a very high cost that’s led to tax increases.”
The deficits that are paid on the backs of taxpayers and the emotional toll on victims’ families make a position advocating for capital punishment untenable. But ultimately, Hyden does not favor federal action and believes the decision to abolish the death penalty should be left to the states.
“The reason people support the death penalty, the No. 1 reason is revenge,” Hyden said. “I’m sure you can make a compelling case that perhaps some people deserve to die, but that’s not the question we need to be asking ourselves. We need to ask ourselves do we trust the government to exercise this authority fairly and without mistake and with efficiency?”
Noah Zuss is a reporter for TheBlot Magazine.