Stirring GOP opposition to the death penalty

Late Tuesday, as the clock approached midnight, Marcus Wellons rode to oblivion on a state-inserted needle, his punishment for the rape and murder of a young Cobb County neighbor 24 years ago.

That same day, Marc Hyden, a 30-year-old confirmed conservative Republican from Marietta, hopped a plane for Washington D.C. Today, he will open a booth at the fifth annual gathering of Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition.

Hyden is a national coordinator for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, a two-year-old, GOP-based group that carries tea party suspicion of government into a new but highly logical arena:

If you don’t trust your government to deliver a piece of mail to your doorstep, how can you trust it to competently decide who lives and who dies?

“This is the same government a lot of Republicans don’t trust with health care,” Hyden said, while nursing a single beer at an Irish pub on Barrett Parkway. It was Monday, and Wellons – the Georgia inmate – had a mere 30 hours left before he would be strapped to his gurney.

Wellons’ coming execution would be notable as the first to occur under Georgia’s policy that makes the lethal-injection process, including the identity of the pharmacy that makes the killing compound, an official state secret.

“The transparency issue should bother everyone in Georgia. There’s no reason why it should be a state secret,” Hyden said. “That bothers me, and I think it should bother most conservatives.”

At this point, it is probably necessary to reassure many of you that Hyden is no ACLU member dressed in woolly conservatism. He comes with a pedigree.

He was a staffer for Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, when the latter was president pro tem of the state Senate. Hyden’s aunt is Julianne Thompson of Atlanta Tea Party Patriots. His uncle, Jason Thompson, is chairman of the 7th District GOP. And Hyden’s last job was as a grassroots organizer in Florida – for the National Rifle Association.

Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty made its debut at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. “We were looked at as kind of a novelty,” Hyden said. “I’m seeing the dialogue change. Criminal justice has become a major issue in the conservative movement, and the death penalty should be the poster child for what’s wrong.”

The liberal argument is that executions are a type of cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the U.S. Constitution. Hyden and his group tread more practical ground.

The death penalty isn’t fiscally responsible. “Everybody knows it’s more expensive than life without parole,” he argued. Single death penalty cases have driven some communities close to bankruptcy.

The process of litigation, which averages 15 years per case, is a torture to the families of the victims. “It promises them a death sentence,” Hyden said. “That promise, because of what happens in appeals, and what happens with the juries – it’s not always kept.”

The death penalty doesn’t work as a deterrent. Texas executes more people than any other state, Hyden points out. But the state’s murder rate hasn’t declined as a result.

But Hyden kept coming back to the fact that we keep finding people on death rows across the country who don’t belong there. “It’s not pro-life, because of the risk of killing innocent people,” Hyden said.

There are significant names behind the movement. Richard Viguerie, a founding father of the modern GOP conservative movement, is a major sponsor. Oliver North has signed on, as has former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele and former GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul.

In Georgia, the most prominent endorser would be Jay Sekulow of Alpharetta, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, which litigates religious conservative issues.

But those are older Republicans. There is a generational shift here that is more reflective of Hyden’s age.

An extensive national survey conducted last year by Barna Group showed that 42 percent of Christian baby-boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, agreed that “government should have the option to execute the worst criminals.”

But among those born between 1980 and 2000, the approval rate dropped to 32 percent among self-identified Christians. Among actively practicing Christian millennials, only 23 percent approved of the death penalty.

The religious connection is important, especially in terms of Georgia politics. An alliance between Southern Baptists and Catholics has been a large part of the success enjoyed by religious conservatives at the state Capitol when it comes to issues such as gay marriage or abortion.

But the death penalty divides the two denominations. Catholics oppose executions. Southern Baptists do not.

Hyden has honed his religious arguments. “If you look at the biblical death penalty, you can still support that, and then completely reject what we’re doing,” he said. “We don’t run it like it is in the Old Testament. You have to have a minimum of two eyewitnesses. We don’t require that.”

Hyden has not yet approached Ralph Reed, whose three-day gathering he’ll be attending, on whether Reed’s opinion on the death penalty has changed over the years. A spokeswoman indicated that it probably hasn’t.

“Faith and Freedom’s position is that we support the death penalty, but that doesn’t mean we reject people who have an alternative view,” said Orit Sklar, Faith and Freedom’s director of development. “Every generation has to figure out what the best public policy is.”

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.