Opinion

The conservative case for capital punishment

I believe we should reform our criminal justice system and reduce mandatory minimum sentences. I also believe the state must kill truly terrible criminals.

On Tuesday night, Oklahoma prisoner Clayton Lockett died of a heart attack after the lethal injection cocktail that was supposed to kill him didn't work.

Pretty much everyone admits that the execution of this convicted murderer was "botched." My colleague Andrew Cohen bemoans the apparent judicial failings that led up to the failed execution. The White House declared that the whole thing fell short of "humane standards."

This is regrettable. But I won't be losing any sleep over it.

Now obviously, a speedy and painless execution would have been better than what Lockett endured. But when you shoot a 19-year-old woman, and then watch as your buddies bury her alive, you sort of forfeit the right to complain about such things.

Of course, my writing this will make me a pariah to the liberal people arguing that this monster should be treated more compassionately.

In any event, this failed execution in Oklahoma has catapulted the topic of capital punishment back into the national spotlight. So this is perhaps a good opportunity to explain why a "bleeding heart conservative" such as yours truly still supports the death penalty (if only in cases of especially heinous acts.)

This isn't a clear-cut Right versus Left issue, of course. A lot of conservatives oppose capital punishment. Some social conservatives see support of the death penalty as inconsistent with opposition to abortion. (The difference, of course, is that unborn babies are innocent.)

To many liberals, it seems that it is deemed more civilized — more evolved — to care about the life of a murderer (or the Nevada desert tortoise) than that of an unborn child (or, for that matter, Lockett's 19-year-old victim). I will never understand this way of thinking, but the very words we use imply we believe it. As Erick Erickson has said, "For liberals a botched execution is when the convict dies, a botched abortion is when the innocent live."

Other small-government conservatives and libertarians argue that it is inconsistent for people who already distrust big government to grant it the power of life and death over its citizens. As a conservative who believes in ordered liberty, and that it is a responsibility of government to protect its citizens, this argument doesn't dissuade me — especially now that DNA testing can and should be used to exonerate the wrongly accused.

Declining crime rates have also given a new crop of conservative reformers the luxury of re-evaluating the "tough on crime" policies that were birthed out of necessity amid the crime and lawlessness of the 1970s, when it seemed the center could not hold. This was around the time when Irving Kristol described a neoconservative as "a liberal mugged by reality." My guess is that the declining crime rate helps explain why a "shrinking majority of Americans" favor the death penalty today. This seems to be a new trend. The death penalty was once so popular — and the "soft on crime" tag so damaging — that presidential candidate Bill Clinton refused to grant clemency to a mentally impaired man named Rickey Ray Rector. This case is reminiscent of the Lockett incident, in that, as the AP reported, "The execution was delayed by nearly an hour because medical personnel were not able to find a suitable vein in which to inject the solution."

Now, count me among those who believe mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug crimes ought to be reconsidered — and who think it's a mistake to take somebody who is guilty of possession of a small amount of marijuana and put them in a cage with violent criminals. (Pat Nolan of Prison Fellowship probably put it best when he said, "We have prisons for people we're afraid of, but we've been filling them with folks we're just mad at.")

I believe in second chances. I believe in reform and rehabilitation. But I also believe in evil.

Twisted rapists and murderers are not in the same universe of criminal as drug users and thieves. So even as we slash mandatory minimum sentences and reform our prison system, I do not believe we should abandon capital punishment for most extreme cases.

You really can't take someone like Clayton Lockett and reform him — or, at least, the odds of doing so are unfathomable. This wasn't a crime of passion. He didn't walk into his house, see his wife in bed with another man, fly into a rage, kill him, and then immediately feel remorse. He shot a 19-year-old woman and then watched his friends bury her alive. Try to reform that.

So what can you do? You certainly can't put him back on the street. You could give him life in prison and a PlayStation 3. But as the son of a prison guard from Maryland, let me assure you: Inmates who have no hope of earning an early release also have no incentive not to harm or kill correctional officers or other inmates. And solitary confinement is arguably a crueler and more unusual form of punishment than the death penalty.

And there's also this: While capital punishment may not be a deterrent (the infrequency of its use almost guarantees this), the recidivism rate is astonishingly low. I mean, there are very few repeat offenders.

So yes, we ought to make sure we get to the bottom of what went wrong with this lethal injection. But no, we shouldn't do too much hand-wringing and pearl-clutching along the way. At the end of the day, the death penalty should be safe, legal, rare — and utterly efficient.

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