Report — From the March 2017 issue

A Matter of Life

The death penalty as a conservative conundrum

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Since 2009, the Georgia Tea Party has held biweekly meetings in Cobb County, an affluent Atlanta suburb that has voted Republican in nine of the past ten national elections. One winter night, the group invited an unlikely guest speaker, a young activist named Marc Hyden. He came to give a presentation against capital punishment, a policy most in attendance endorsed. “Nearly all of us are what you might call traditional conservatives on this issue,” Steve Covert, a member of the advisory board, said. “We just believe that the death penalty is justified if someone is convicted of premeditated murder. To me, it’s the right thing to do if someone takes a life.”

“State Death House Prison, Carson City, Nevada,” by Stephen Tourlentes, from his series Of Length and Measures, which documents prisons in the American landscape. Courtesy Carroll and Sons, Boston

“State Death House Prison, Carson City, Nevada,” by Stephen Tourlentes, from his series Of Length and Measures, which documents prisons in the American landscape. Courtesy Carroll and Sons, Boston

The Tea Party rents its space, a bare-bones room that was once used to store auto parts, from the Roswell Street Baptist Church. Roswell belongs to the Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination that adheres to a harsh interpretation of biblical doctrine on execution. (Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”) A crowd of about thirty people — mostly white, mostly middle-aged — settled into folding chairs. To start, they said a prayer, and then recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

Hyden was called to the front. He is thirty-two, with close-cropped brown hair and a ready smile. He wore one of the thirteen suits that he has acquired over a decade in politics. He runs 6.2 miles three times a week, so he’s thin and fit, but he still has the fair skin of an indoor kid — he spends his spare hours reading Roman history. He lives in Acworth, a few exits up I-75, and opened with a neighborly greeting. Before he’d begun giving talks like this, he told the room, he’d worked for the National Rifle Association. “I’m a conservative,” he said. This, as always, put his audience at ease.

Hyden grew up defending a state’s right to kill. He spent most of his childhood in suburban Tennessee, where his father, Robert, worked as a pastor and then became a major-crimes detective. The entire Hyden family firmly supported the death penalty — during those years, most Americans did. In 1988, Michael Dukakis sank his presidential bid with a dispassionate response to a debate question about punishing his wife’s theoretical murderer. When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, he scrapped his previous opposition to capital punishment and established his tough-on-crime bona fides by returning to Arkansas to oversee an execution. (The condemned man was Ricky Ray Rector, who had killed a police officer.) In the White House, Clinton went on to push a crime bill that vastly increased the number of offenses eligible for capital punishment under federal law. During his reelection campaign, he released an ad promising that he would “expand the death penalty. That’s how we’ll protect America.”

But by the time Hyden got to college, in the early 2000s, public opinion on capital punishment was beginning to shift. Nonprofits like the Innocence Project were using DNA analysis to free the wrongly convicted. The horrors of lives circumscribed by false imprisonment, and the poignancy of triumphant releases, were covered widely in the press, displaying the justice system’s fallibility. According to the latest count, since 1973 there have been nearly 160 people sent to death row and then exonerated. In 2014, the National Academy of Sciences estimated that 4 percent of prisoners sentenced to death are innocent; however, the academy also noted that the true number would remain a “dark figure” — “not merely unknown but unknowable.”

When Hyden saw reports like this, he’d return to a question that had troubled him from a young age: What did God think of the executioner? Was he not a murderer? And, he began to consider, the danger of killing a possibly innocent person clashed with his belief in the sanctity of life. He opposed abortion; if life was sacred, the death penalty couldn’t be pro-life. He also wondered whether capital punishment could be compatible with his ideal of small government. “There’s really no greater power than the power to take life, and currently our government can kill its citizens,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything limited in that.”

For a fiscal conservative, the high costs of capital trials presented another dilemma. In Texas, the state with the busiest death chamber, the expense of a capital case is roughly three times as much as imprisoning someone in a single cell for forty years. In Nebraska, the capital system costs taxpayers $14.6 million annually. And enforcing the death penalty in Florida comes to $51 million a year above lifetime imprisonment. Such price tags could exhaust a jurisdiction’s entire budget. In 2013, Clallam County, in Washington (population 72,000), laid off 15 percent of its workforce to fund a death-row retrial, at a cost of a million dollars. In Imperial, California, a budget officer spent three days in jail for refusing to pay for a capital trial that would bankrupt the county; the budget officer’s case wound up coming to half a million dollars, and the original defendant was ultimately acquitted. Hyden was appalled to learn that other counties were going so far as to pay for capital trials by raising taxes.

After graduating, Hyden traversed the South working on G.O.P. campaigns. In 2012, after finishing a congressional race in North Carolina, he took a position as a field representative for the N.R.A. in Florida. One day near the end of the year, he was at home browsing when he spotted an unusual ad. An advocacy group that he’d never heard of, Equal Justice USA, was looking for candidates with “experience” and “comfort working with conservatives” to join a national campaign to “expand understanding of the death penalty’s flaws.” The project was called Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Around twenty-five people applied. But Hyden was the jackpot. “I will never forget the phone interview,” Heather Beaudoin, the national organizer for Conservatives Concerned, told me. “This guy was not messing around. He had a real conservative background. Gosh, he had come from the N.R.A.”

Sketch of a cell by a man who has been on death row for more than thirteen years, from Black Is the Day, Black Is the Night, a self-published book by the photographer Amy Elkins. Courtesy Amy Elkins

Sketch of a cell by a man who has been on death row for more than thirteen years, from Black Is the Day, Black Is the Night, a self-published book by the photographer Amy Elkins. Courtesy Amy Elkins

As the group’s political spokesman — his official title is conservative-outreach specialist — Hyden has been on the road for four years, pitching the abolition of capital punishment in America’s least liberal corners. Facing his audience in Cobb County, he didn’t focus on the vulnerability of offenders with mental illnesses or the iniquities against the poor and people of color. Instead, after telling the Tea Partiers where he used to work, Hyden opened up a PowerPoint with quotes from other “conservatives who are coming out.” There was Oliver North (“There are very serious questions about the justice of the death penalty”) and Michael Steele (“I do not support the death penalty”). He flipped through pictures of Anthony Graves, who was freed after eighteen years on death row, and Carlos de Luna, who was executed by the state of Texas even though another man confessed to the crime. Hyden explained the procedures of a capital conviction and the lengthy appellate cycles, which can drag on for decades, costing more with each passing year. Between 1978 and 2011, he continued, California spent $4 billion to execute thirteen people — a stunning fiscal burden. The state now leads the nation in the number of inmates on death row: 748. When he finished, he looked out at the group and asked, “Do you trust the government to fairly administer the death penalty?”

The crowd raised their hands in a vote. “The room was split half and half, and two or three people said he’d changed their minds,” J. D. Van Brink, the Georgia Tea Party chairman, said. Hyden told me that was standard. “There’s always at least one, usually more depending on the size of the group, that comes up to me afterward and says they changed their mind.”

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