In 2010, a small group of conservatives in Montana formed around the belief that pro-life values should be consistent and applied from birth throughout the natural death of an individual. They began calling themselves Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty (CCATDP).
Word of the organization quickly spread.
That was nine years ago, and at the time Republicans working against the death penalty were an anomaly. To say the deck was stacked against the group is an understatement, but they had one thing on their side: the facts.
The facts are that the death penalty is inconsistent with the bedrock values of conservatism, which include a belief in limited government, fiscal responsibility, and the protection of human life. Far from being a deterrent to crime, the use of the death penalty actually correlates with higher rates of violent crime and contributes to fewer crimes being solved.
The risk of killing innocent people is shocking. Recent research show that one person on death row is exonerated for every nine executions, and that probably doesn’t cover the larger majority of potentially innocent person who for one reason or another were unable to get legal help to press their case.
And the money spent on the death penalty – which equals about a million dollars more per case than life without parole – is money that isn’t being spent on programs that actually could work to make communities safer.
It turns out the death penalty is just another failed big government program.
As CCATDP began to preach its message, it found a responsive base that embraced the cause. Since the organization went national, announcing its official launch at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2013, the number of Republican lawmakers sponsoring bills to repeal the death penalty has increased ten-fold.
The U.S. is down to only 25 states with an active death penalty system. Of those, over a third of the states have not carried out an execution in more than a decade. New death sentences have also plummeted 60 percent since 2000, and capital punishment is increasingly viewed as a relic of a more barbaric and less educated time.
Last week, CCATDP hosted its first national gathering in New Orleans. Over 20 staff members, supporters, state leaders, and volunteers came together to strategize for the future.
The organization has expanded to more than a dozen states over the past six years, and plans to launch two new chapters by the end of 2019. Its leaders work to help educate other conservatives in their states about the problems with the death penalty through conferences, speaking engagements, events, op-eds, and coalition-building.
Over the past year, their members have given testimony, organized press conferences, and given countless media interviews.
And it seems the world has taken note.
This year alone, 11 states had Republican-sponsored bills to repeal the death penalty and three states removed their systems. New Hampshire through a legislative repeal, California through an executive moratorium, and Washington through a judicial overrule. The coming year is shaping up as another big step forward with repeal efforts expected in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah already.
CCATDP believes its message can strengthen these campaigns on the ultimate path to success and repeal.
Its members represent a cross-section of experiences from around the country.
Col. (Ret.) Rob Maness, a decorated Air Force combat veteran from Louisiana, Gator PAC Chairman, television host, and member of the St. Tammany Parish, Republican Parish Executive Committee who attended the meeting, says his state’s own record explains why the death penalty needs to be rethought.
“Louisiana leads the nation in per capita wrongful convictions with 11 people released from death row,” he said. “We are not capable of administering the death penalty in a way that ensures that not one innocent person is put to death accidentally.”
The innocence argument is one that has gained traction in the county, particularly among conservatives. Given that the rates of wrongful convictions are so high, no state is free from the possibility that it might execute an innocent person.
Another interesting talking point for CCATDP has been the overall failings of the justice system. Far from being excluded from the normal corruption, ineffectiveness, and waste of other government programs, the justice system exasperates them as people’s lives are caught in the mess.
“I have learned a lot about Ohio’s criminal justice system, as well as the extreme traumas people endure in life that impact their judgment,” said Ross Geiger of Ohio, who voted for death as a juror in the Ray Tibbetts murder trial two decades ago.
“If I had known all the facts about the horrors he suffered in foster care, his severe drug and alcohol addiction and his improper opioid prescription, I would have voted for life, not death.”
Geiger, who also attended the meeting, ended up petitioning for clemency in the case years later when he became aware of the vital information that had been withheld from the jury.
It’s a message that resonates with many, as almost every American has had our founding principle ingrained in them – that it is better for a hundred guilty men to go free than one innocent person perish.
The weekend’s gathering was monumental, as participants looked back on all the achievements the movement has secured over the past couple of years. CCATDP has established itself as the go-to for conservative arguments against the death penalty and its message has hit a crescendo.
In today’s political climate, it can easily feel impossible to make a meaningful difference on policy – especially one as divisive, emotional, and partisan as the death penalty. But CCATDP is evidence that the cream will still rise, and that people can be won over with facts and sound arguments.
Over the course of the New Orleans event, it was incredible to contemplate the growth of CCATPD and see just how far a small group of conservatives with committed principles have been able to come. In another six years, there’s no telling where the organization will have gone.
But if history is any indicator, we’ll have a few more notches on our belt.
Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Hannah was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She welcomes comments from readers.