Louisiana's state flag (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

As a lifelong small-government conservative Republican, I have always believed the state should do only what makes good fiscal and policy sense and err only on the side of liberty. I also used to believe the death penalty was justified.

I have since learned that capital punishment actually violates many of the conservative principles that I hold dear, such as fiscal responsibility, limited government, and valuing life.

Working in the criminal justice system for many years as a defense attorney and public defender has opened my eyes to the realities of Louisiana’s death penalty. But the facts are there for everyone to see, if they just look.

Louisiana makes the most mistakes per capita of any state in the nation when it comes to sentencing innocent people to death, according to a 2019 study by retired New Orleans District Chief Judge Calvin Johnson and Loyola law professor William Quigley. The nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center reports that, since 1973, 11 people have been wrongfully convicted and sent to Louisiana’s death row.

We need to ask ourselves — how many innocent people is it all right to execute? At what price?

I believe there is no justification for making life-and-death mistakes we cannot undo. And even if it did not cost us anything, allowing the state to kill people would still mean that we trusted the government too much.

The words “too much” apply when you look at the taxpayer dollars spent on the death penalty. The Johnson-Quigley study found that the death penalty costs Louisiana taxpayers at least $15.6 million more a year than a system whose maximum sentence is life imprisonment without parole. As a conservative Republican, I prefer not to be taxed more and unnecessarily. My preference would be that money saved by getting rid of this wasteful government program be returned to the taxpayers of Louisiana, put toward programs that could actually deter crime, or spent on solving more crimes.

The U.S. actually is very bad at solving violent crime in the first place. We made arrests in just 50 percent of homicides over a 10-year period, according to a Washington Post analysis of crime data from 55 cities. That report found just 35 percent of homicide cases in New Orleans from 2010 to 2017 led to arrests. Countless other violent crimes, such as rape and assault, go totally unsolved. We spend a lot of money on only a few death penalty cases while neglecting the majority of victims.

I do not approve of that; no conservative should. No matter how you define pro-life, this doesn’t meet anyone’s definition.

What have we been getting for all the money we have been spending on the death penalty in Louisiana? Not much. For 30 years, our state has had the highest per capita murder rate in America,  last reported at 11.4 murders per 100,000 people. Clearly, the death penalty is not a deterrent.

I have come to see that, in Louisiana, the death penalty is pushed only by a select few people, while the vast majority of victims and their families do not even see their crimes solved. The pro-death penalty lobby, comprised primarily of a small number of prosecutors, seeks to maximize its power and use human lives as pawns. They ignore or affirmatively deny the serious problems of error. They are not looking out for the taxpayer in general, nor are they looking out for our communities. In this respect, we may compare Louisiana’s maintaining and promoting the death penalty to the state’s habit of building reservoirs and golf courses — both policies mainly benefit a few connected constituents who have self-interests in maintaining the system as it is.

There are, however, some indications of change.

The first sign came in 2018, when a Louisiana State Senate Judiciary Committee approved a death penalty repeal bill on a bipartisan vote; two Republican senators voted in favor. They are among an increasing number of GOP state lawmakers who have come out against the death penalty in recent years.

According to a report from Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, there has been a big increase in Republican state legislators nationwide who have sponsored bills to repeal their states’ capital punishment statutes. From 2000 to 2012, the number of Republican state lawmakers sponsoring death penalty repeal bills never rose above single digits in any year. Last year, there were 56 GOP repeal sponsors in 10 states.

The second sign of change on capital punishment here in the Bayou State happened last year when, for the first time ever, a death penalty repeal bill made it to the full Louisiana House of Representatives for a debate. Although the bill was pulled before a vote, it was a historic moment and it represented real progress.

The latest harbinger of change appeared with last week’s launch of the new Louisiana chapter of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. I was proud to stand outside the Louisiana State Capitol with other conservative Republicans and Libertarians to call for the repeal of capital punishment because it does not align with our conservative values.

We are part of a national trend of conservatives abandoning capital punishment as support for the death penalty has tanked across the political spectrum. The most recent Gallup poll on the issue found, for the first time in 34 years of polling, that more Americans support life imprisonment for convicted murderers than support the death penalty. Contributing significantly to that shift is the fact that Republican support for capital punishment dropped 10 points since the last time the question was asked.

The death penalty is simply bad public policy; we can protect society for much less money and also correct our errors if we just end it. Executing people who commit murder does nothing to make the people of our state any safer. And ending capital punishment will do nothing to weaken our state’s commitment to protect citizens.

With the death penalty, the impact on the cost of government, on constitutional rights, and on the sanctity of human life all fall on the same side of the scale – the wrong side. As a principled, conservative Republican, I call on Louisiana to end this antiquated practice. And I call on all who share my values to join me.

E. King Alexander

E. King Alexander is a Supervising and Life-Without-Parole Attorney for the Calcasieu Public Defenders Office, a member of the Louisiana Republican State Central Committee, and a member of the advisory council for Louisiana Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.

The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Engagement Editor Tom Wright at twright@thelensnola.org.