Hyden: Conservatives concerned about death penalty

I really didn't know what to expect when I arrived at the state capitol in April for Justice Day on the Hill, an annual event of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. I am a lifelong Republican who has worked for the National Rifle Association (NRA), multiple GOP campaigns, and as a Republican Georgia State Senate staffer -- and was raised in Cleveland, Tenn. I am one of two national coordinators for a relatively new group called Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.

As I have come to find everywhere I have traveled since starting this work back in January, I quickly discovered in Tennessee that I was not alone in my death penalty concerns. For example, I met with State Representative Steve McManus, a Republican who represents a district in Shelby County, which I learned has sent more people to death row than any other county in Tennessee (32 out of a total 81).

As a fiscal conservative, Representative McManus understands that Tennessee is experiencing the same problems as other states with the death penalty, and we discussed the exorbitant costs of capital punishment. The death penalty system varies from state to state, but it can be as much as 20 times more expensive than a comparable case with the penalty of life without parole. A 2004 report by the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury concluded that death penalty trials are longer and more expensive at every step as compared to other murder trials.

I found out that one inmate has actually been on death row for more than 35 years. Murder victims' families are waiting decades for something that -- although promised -- is not ever likely to happen, and the taxpayers keep footing the bill. It may surprise some people to learn all of this, but for me, it's the same story everywhere I go.

Rep. McManus, like a growing number of Republicans around the country, told me of his concerns about the possibility of executing an innocent person and how Tennessee's death penalty system gets it wrong sometimes. He pointed to the case of Paul House, who spent nearly 23 years on Tennessee's death row before all charges against him were dropped in 2009.

Mr. House attended Justice Day as did Ndume Olatushani, who was tried in Shelby County and spent 20 years on Tennessee's death row but was freed last year after serious questions around his guilt arose.

All liberty-loving people, regardless of political party and political philosophy, should be deeply concerned that we have wrongfully convicted people of murder and in all probability executed many who were innocent.

I am a law-and-order Republican who believes we need be tough on crime, but also smart on crime. No one in our growing network of conservatives concerned about the death penalty is interested in coddling criminals. However, as we can plainly see, the death penalty in Tennessee, as well as the rest of America, is neither swift nor sure.

In fact, it is rife with problems that are simply not acceptable when lives are on the line. I have learned that the death penalty is the farthest thing from swift and sure justice when other sentences bear a punishment that will begin to be served immediately after sentencing.

The time has come to re-examine capital punishment from a conservative perspective, in terms of the waste of tax dollars, the risk of executing innocent people and the system's negative impact on victims' families.

We put our views to the test at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference near Washington, D.C., where I was joined by conservatives from Montana, Kentucky, Texas, Kansas and elsewhere. The reaction confirmed there are many people like us. Hundreds of people visited our exhibition booth and expressed their support for getting rid of what they consider to be another bloated government program.

I am pleased to report that support among conservatives for taking another look at capital punishment is growing here in the Volunteer State, too. Conservatives want to limit government's power; we want to reduce the waste and excessive cost of government; we want to protect liberty. The death penalty has proven to be inconsistent with these values, and it's time we all did something about it.

Marc Hyden is a national advocacy coordinator for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.