Execution Shift 

Conservatives argue death penalty is a ‘prime example of bloated, broken government.’

State officials began executing death-row inmates again here last year — another just last week — but a group of conservatives is speaking out against the death penalty and says changes on it are afoot in red-state legislatures.

click to enlarge Stephen Michael West was executed last week in Nashville. - DEATH PENALTY INFORMATION CENTER
  • Death Penalty Information Center
  • Stephen Michael West was executed last week in Nashville.

Stephen Michael West was executed in Nashville last Thursday. He was convicted in the 1986 murders of a mother and her 15-year-old daughter in Union and for raping the daughter.

West was the fifth inmate to be executed here since state officials began scheduling executions again last year. Before that, the state's last execution was in 2010.

Next month, Tennessean Amy Lawrence will attend the first annual national meeting of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. She spoke with us about her group and its aims. — Toby Sells

Memphis Flyer: You said the death penalty violates the basic tenets of your group's beliefs. How?

Amy Lawrence: I believe that the core tenet of conservatism is small, limited government, and as conservatives, we apply this concept to a variety of issues, whether that be taxation, health care, or regulations. This is the same tenet that should be applied to capital punishment.

Simply put, the death penalty is anything but small, limited government. It is a prime example of a bloated, broken government program. It is costly, it risks executing an innocent person, and it leaves the ultimate power over life and death in the hands of a fallible system.

MF: You also said that "murders should be followed with swift and sure justice." What does that justice look like to you?

AL: Well, it sure doesn't look like years of appeals and decades of court proceedings for the victims' family members.

The death penalty does not provide swift and sure justice but instead drags families through decades of litigation, where, in at least half the cases in Tennessee, the sentence is overturned and the convicted receives a life sentence anyway.

Life without parole begins as soon as the trial is over and allows families to at least have some legal finality.

MF: What alternatives to the death penalty does your group hope lawmakers will consider?

AL: Tennessee already has a life sentence of 51 years before parole eligibility and life without parole, which does not allow for parole ever. These are the two sentences that the majority of murderers already receive.

MF: Is an alternative to the death penalty a hard sell in the broader conservative community?

AL: I really focus on what unites conservatives on this issue — limited government, fiscal responsibility, and pro-life stances.

We know that government and human decisions are error-prone. We simply cannot guarantee that we can carry out capital punishment with 100 percent accuracy. While the punishment might be just in some circumstances, we cannot carry it out justly.

We also have limited resources, and with death sentences costing $1 to $2 million more than life without parole, I think the majority of people would support having those resources go toward victims' compensation, law enforcement, and mental health programs.

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