Conservatives in America have long argued that the death penalty is a necessary fixture of our legal and carceral system, both as a “crime deterrent” and as a means of serving justice. But more conservatives today are questioning the moral, fiscal, and practical justifications for this barbaric practice. TRNN Executive Producer Eddie Conway and Charles Hopkins, better known as Mansa Musa, speak with Demetrius Minor about the new generation of conservatives who are joining the fight to abolish the death penalty.
Demetrius Minor is the national manager of Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty and author of the book Preservation and Purpose: The Making of a Young Millennial, A Manifesto for Faith, Family and Politics. He is a preacher, advocate, relationship builder, and a writer working to educate and mobilize conservatives around the systematic flaws with the death penalty.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Eddie Conway: Welcome to this episode of Rattling the Bars. There’s been a campaign afoot in America to abolish the death penalty, and it’s been going on for centuries, in fact. Recently, 20-some years or so ago, conservatives have joined this fight. And in the last couple of decades the number of conservatives has increased tremendously in support of abolishing the death penalty. Joining me today to help us understand what’s happening is Demetrius Minor, the national manager of Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty. Demetrius, thanks for joining us.
Demetrius Minor: Thank you for having me. Glad to be with you.
Eddie Conway: Okay. You could start off maybe, if you will, by giving us an overview of the conservative push to make changes to the death penalty.
Demetrius Minor: Absolutely. Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty was founded in 2012 in the state of Montana where some Republican lawmakers wanted to get together and raise concerns about the death penalty and how it has been implemented. So basically, we take our message to audiences that’s made up of conservatives, whether it be social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, or whatnot. And our main message is to get them on board to see the death penalty repealed. And so that is a state-by-state campaign. And we have had a visible presence in multiple states as we seek to abolish the death penalty.
Eddie Conway: Well, what’s the argument that you use? Conservatives have always been pro-death penalty even though they’re pro-life. They’ve always been with the stand-your-ground or stop-and-shoot, three strikes. They’ve always been hard toward criminal justice. What do you use to argue to make them change their minds?
Demetrius Minor: So actually there has been a shift. A monumental shift, I would say. So I’m going to point to three key arguments as to why the death penalty should be repealed.
Argument number one. Let’s take the moral case, and that is being pro-life. It’s not enough just to say, okay, I’m pro-life, against abortion for the innocence of the unborn child. Being pro-life is about the totality of life and that includes lives that are lived drastically different than ours. So if I’m pro-life I cannot be simultaneously pro-death. It causes a moral conflict and therefore causes a moral contradiction of my values and of my principles. But the problem with that, or I don’t want to say the problem, but an issue is that morality is subjective. So what’s moral to me may not be necessarily moral to you.
But number two, when you talk about the fiscal component of the death penalty, how it is costly ineffective. From my understanding, this show is based out of Maryland. Before Maryland repealed the death penalty, it spent $186 million on roughly five executions. Five executions, $186 million. That’s an astronomical amount. But what if that number, what if those funds were reallocated elsewhere such as law enforcement, training and resources for them, services and benefits for the victims’ families, mental health training? There’s a plethora of things that money could have been used for instead of the death penalty. So from a fiscal perspective, the death penalty is costly, ineffective. Okay?
And then number three, the death penalty is actually an extension of big government. I do not trust the federal government to give me updated COVID numbers. I don’t trust the federal government to handle healthcare. I don’t trust the federal government to balance a budget. I don’t trust the federal government to even address the deficit. Why would I trust the government with a matter of literally – And no hyperbole – Life and death? So for these reasons alone we have seen a shift in conservatives supporting the death penalty to opposing it.
Eddie Conway: Mansa?
Charles Hopkins: Yeah, Demetrius, let’s dial down on the message. How do you take your message – And it’s a good message as you outline your three points – How do you take your message and coalesce with other people that are not necessarily conservative but have the same concerns that you have in the same light that you have? Moral, economic, and the other one. How do y’all, or have y’all, looked in that direction to build a coalition along those lines?
Demetrius Minor: Sure. So I believe in meeting people where they’re at. And again, people can oppose the death penalty for whatever reason, different reasons: morally, fiscally, racially, culturally. Whatever stance that they have, if they have concerns about the death penalty or if they just want to repeal it, all right, we welcome them on board.
Let me give you an example of some of the coalitions that we’re building. In the state of Ohio. Ohio is a political bellwether state. Ohio has a Republican-controlled legislature including the House and Senate and a Republican governor. Ohio is positioning themselves to repeal the death penalty and the coalition is pretty broad. It includes progressives, it includes conservatives such as our organization, Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, but even progressive organizations such as the ACLU or the NAACP, just to name a few.
So the repealing of the death penalty is actually a bipartisan approach. It’s a bipartisan matter. But it is met with Republican leadership. Let me tell you very quickly about the three states, the last three states to repeal the death penalty. I’m going to start with Colorado. Colorado repealed the death penalty because there was a trio of Republican senators who were very instrumental in getting it passed. In the state of New Hampshire the Republican governor actually vetoed the death penalty legislation. However, 40% of the Republican caucus voted to override the governor’s veto. A Republican governor’s veto, that’s very important.
And then the state of Virginia, which just elected a Republican governor in November, it repealed the death penalty last spring. And that was due to the leadership of some Republican members who were very instrumental in getting that passed. In Utah, even though it came one vote short in the committee, Utah came very close. A deep red state, because Republican leadership wanted to get the bill through to their members. So all across the board, all across the nation, there is a paradigm shift happening in Republicans and conservatives and they’re taking the lead and repealing the death penalty.
Charles Hopkins: Okay. On the note of how do you reconcile this push with the fact of the victims, how do y’all coalesce with the victims? Victims of these crimes that have been committed that result in the death penalty, are y’all networking with them, talking to them, educating them, or getting their input on the positions that y’all are taking?
Demetrius Minor: That’s a great question. Victims’ families, murder victims’ families are actually a key instrumental component in our message. I was just in Ohio two weeks ago. I was meeting with political leadership there and trying to get the bill passed. But one of the individuals I met with the was Reverend Dr. Crystal Walker, and her son was murdered. What makes her story so compelling is she actually knows the perpetrator of the crime, and this person has not been arrested for whatever reason, lack of evidence and so forth. But she looked me in the eye and she said this. She says, I don’t wish this on my worst enemy. She says, because do you know what the death penalty would do? It is just going to repeat a cycle of trauma and grief. She says, I may be hurting right now, but if the death penalty is implemented that means someone else’s family is going to have to go through the grieving process. And it does not bring the loved one back. It’s not going to resurrect that life again.
So a lot of people may think that murder victims’ families automatically advocate for the death penalty. That’s not true. Many victims’ families are advocating for the abolition of the death penalty because all it does is repeat the grief cycle and trauma. And that is something they don’t want to have to go through over and over again.
Eddie Conway: Tell me, what other states are you campaigning in and what’s the nature of those campaigns? And third, how successful is the progress so far?
Demetrius Minor: Sure. Well let me start with the state that I reside in. That is the state of Florida. Now, this is moreso laying the groundwork for 2023, but they are trying to get those who have severe mental illness exempt from the death penalty, which is an instrumental and incremental way of getting the death penalty abolished in its entirety. But sometimes you have to do it step-by-step instead of trying to tackle it all at one time. That’s one example.
There has been some legislation introduced in states such as Georgia, Kentucky, Wyoming, deep red states that are going to be introducing legislation either this session or next session tackling the death penalty. Some other states that are sort of in our peripheral include Nevada and Arizona. Those western states are looking to get rid of it. It is my hope that Ohio will abolish the death penalty by the end of this year. If that happens, what I believe we’ll see is a domino effect in neighboring red states and red states all across the United States that will start to look at the death penalty and say, it’s costly, ineffective. It actually does not serve as a deterrence to crime. And most importantly, it does not line up with the value of life. And hopefully we’ll start to see red states repeal the death penalty following Ohio’s lead.
Eddie Conway: Okay, this is not a personal question, but what’s the reception when you go in front of a conservative audience and you make this argument? I noticed you said there was a shift, a tremendous shift apparently, because from 2000 to now, you can talk about the numbers, but it’s been a great increase. What’s the reception for you in front of these audiences?
Demetrius Minor: So, just like any other issue, any other subject whether it’s taxes, whether it’s education, whether it’s labor, whether it’s national security, you’re going to have different views. You’re going to have opposing views on whatever issue you decide to address.
Here’s why I’ve been receiving a very good reception to these issues. I just attended CPAC, which stands for Conservative Political Action Conference. It is the largest gathering of conservative activists, policy makers, and legislators in the entire nation. For the first time in this conference’s existence, the death penalty was on the docket. It was on the agenda. And I was in a room full of conservative policy makers, conservative activists from all across the country. And I’m telling you, there was a shift that was happening in that room, where people were raising concerns, where people were asking really good questions about why it doesn’t work, and why it is still being used.
I actually saw and heard a former US Senator’s wife stand up and testify that she used to be pro-death penalty until she became an attorney, until she saw how the system does not work for everyone. She started to see the fallacies of the criminal justice system and then she became opposed to the death penalty. That’s just one conversation that I saw in the room. But I’m starting to see this conversation take place. Personally, among my peers, I’ve seen this conversation taking place through our social media outlets. And so therefore I’m getting a really positive reception when I talk about the death penalty.
Is everyone I talk to against it? No, there are some that are for it. But I also have heard some that says, well I’m for it in extreme cases but I’m also open-minded to hear more information about it. That tells me that people are starting to see it as a government program, a government entity that has not been working that has many flaws. We’ve seen innocent people be put to death and therefore people are starting to raise legitimate concerns about it.
Eddie Conway: Mansa?
Charles Hopkins: I noticed, and I want to talk about some of the bills that were introduced. I think I read the bill that was submitted in Utah. I’m looking at the language in the bill, and I want to know how instrumental are y’all in terms of crafting this language? More importantly, you interject in life without parole. But in this particular bill they had alternatives in addition to life without parole. So what are your views on the alternatives?
Demetrius Minor: So, in my role I do not write the bills. I do not sit with legislators and craft out language of the bill. We do have a separate team that is involved in my work. My work is simply to promote it amongst conservative audiences. So whether it’s in Utah, whether it’s in Ohio, whatever state it is in, I reach out to the constituents there, I reach out to the leaders, the policy makers, the advocates, those who have a feel for what’s going on on the ground, those who are involved in the grassroots process. And that’s how I go about my work. I’m not involved in the crafting of the bill.
Charles Hopkins: Let me follow up then, and stay right there in terms of the constituents. Eddie asked for the response from the policy makers. What kind of feedback are you getting from the people on the ground, the grassroots, the people that’s affected by it and ultimately conservative in terms of the criminal justice system? What kind of feedback are you getting when you’re going to these areas?
Demetrius Minor: Yeah. So conservatives in general believe that the criminal justice system is very flawed. The criminal justice system needs to be reformed, if not transformed. Conservatives in general want to see rehabilitation, want to see redemption, and want to see people having access to good education and able to be a part of the workforce. And if that’s going to happen, that means that we need to look at the criminal justice system and acknowledge that it’s ineffective the way that it is currently constructed.
So again, I want to say that the reception that I’m getting is very positive. It’s just a matter of moving from point A to moving to point B, getting the legislators to push the bill forward, to get committee hearings on it, to bring the bill to the floor. And when you’re talking about that process, that doesn’t happen overnight. But the conversations that I am having are very fruitful and very productive.
Eddie Conway: Okay. Well, just a final question. Is there anything our audience can do to support your effort or any place they need to contact?
Demetrius Minor: Absolutely. I’m glad you asked that question. I would encourage your audience to please go to www.conservativesconcerned.org. Please sign up. We send out monthly or biweekly newsletters giving people updates on the campaigns and our work nationwide. And then also they can add to the extended list of conservatives who have lended their voice and opposition to the death penalty. So if they want to go to conservativesconcerned.org there’s more information there on how they can be involved.
Demetrius Minor: Correct.
Eddie Conway: Okay. Demetrius, thanks for giving us that overview and update. Thanks for joining us.
Demetrius Minor: Absolutely. It’s been a pleasure. Thank you for having me, guys.
Eddie Conway: And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars.