RALEIGH – State House Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Guilford) knows he has an uphill battle to repeal the death penalty in North Carolina. It is such a long shot right now that he has not even filed a bill. But standing with two conservative, longtime Tarheels active in Republican politics Tuesday, Hardister said he is starting to see more conservatives reassess the death penalty, and he is optimistic about the long term.
“This is an emotional issue, and I respect both sides of the discussion,” said Hardister. “But I think it’s a conversation we should have.”
Joining Hardister to start the conversation was a state Senator from Nebraska, Colby Coash. Coash, who considers himself a conservative Republican, guided a bill through Nebraska’s unicameral legislature to repeal the death penalty, even overriding a gubernatorial veto to end executions in the Cornhusker state.
Coash says he was once an enthusiastic death penalty supporter, but participating in a “tailgate atmosphere” outside the state penitentiary one night changed his mind.
“They were counting down to the execution like you might count down [on] New Year’s Eve,” Coash said. “That stuck with me. And I said to myself at that time, ‘this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. We’re not supposed to be celebrating death in this way.’”
Hardister and the group Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty say that three generally conservative arguments stack up to tip the scales against state-sponsored executions.
The first argument is about government inefficiency and cost. The judicial process is cumbersome; it often takes two decades of appeals and hearings before an execution. The last execution in North Carolina was in 2006, and since then inmates have been released from death row when new evidence proved their innocence.
“Republicans are not too keen on inefficiency in government programs, and that carries over into the judicial system,” said Mark Edwards, a the three-term chairman of the Nash County Republican Party and the state chairman for the concerned conservatives group.
A 1993 study by Duke University researchers found that capital cases cost an average of $2.2 million more than non-capital ones. The state pays the vast majority of those costs, since it is paying for both the prosecution and the defense as well as law enforcement and judicial costs. (Only the most affluent defendants are able to hire their own counsel for the duration of a capital case and its appeals.) Repeal supporters also point to a Duke study that found that the state could save at least $11 million annually by abolishing the death penalty.
The second argument conservatives point to is what they call the incongruity of calling oneself pro-life and supporting the death penalty at the same time. That argument resonates with Ernie Pearson, a Raleigh lawyer and lifetime Republican who worked for governors Holshouser and Martin.
“I come to it from a matter of faith. As a Christian, I started thinking on it and praying about it about a year and a half ago,” said Pearson. “And after discussing it with my minister – who happens to be quite conservative himself – I just couldn’t come to the conclusion that we do not have the right as human beings… to take away the life, to take away God’s opportunity to redeem one of his children. It’s that simple.”
The third argument for conservatives is a libertarian one. Many say that the government should not have power over citizens’ death, and that citizens cannot trust the state to apply a death penalty efficiently and fairly when it can do so little right.
“As much as Republicans support law enforcement and support the judicial system, it’s run by humans and it’s flawed – just like every other government program,” said Edwards.
Hardister said he has Republican supporters in the General Assembly but that they did not want to be public about their views yet. He urged all legislators to talk to their constituents and see where they were on the issue.
“Public opinion is changing on this, particularly in the Republican Party. But it’s not going to happen overnight,” Hardister said. “It will take time. But I think we’re moving in that direction.”