110 New Profiles in Courage

3 Comments | Category: General

Jack Kennedy’s famous book Profiles in Courage should be updated to include the bravery of the Maryland leaders who demonstrated an astounding amount of political courage by repealing the state’s long-standing death penalty law.

Just several days ago the Maryland State Senate voted 27 to 20 and the House voted 82 to 56 to replace the death sentence with life in prison without parole. Declaring his support for the repeal in a Politico op/ed, Governor Martin O’Malley—a potential presidential candidate—noted that “Capital punishment is not a deterrent, it is not fool-proof, it is administered with great racial disparity, it costs three times as much as life without parole, and there is no way to reverse a mistake when an innocent person is wrongly convicted.”

Maryland is the 18th state to abolish the death penalty thanks to O’Malley and the 109 men and women in the Maryland General Assembly who fearlessly confronted public opinion and the conventional political wisdom. They also stared down the psychological and political stigma associated with this issue which suggests that politicians who dare oppose the death penalty will forever be branded as soft on crime. Their leadership should be a model for governors, legislators, and citizens nationwide.


I have long been a proponent of both state-by-state and national prohibitions on the use of capital punishment. It amazes me that we live in a nation where placards bearing the Ten Commandments adorn the walls of our courthouses, yet we tolerate sentences handed down in these very halls of justice which blatantly violate the very spirit of “Thou shalt not kill.”

How can our policymakers and citizens sleep at night knowing that innocent people have been executed as a result of this policy? How can we not have a national moratorium in place allowing authorities time to properly determine whether those facing death are truly guilty of their crimes? The data showing the large number of death row inmates exonerated before facing the ultimate sentence is unsettling. This policy, in my view, is morally reprehensible and ethically deficient.

Furthermore, it is a national embarrassment that the United States—by continuing to embrace the death penalty as an acceptable policy—belongs to a list of nations known for being authoritarian states or third world backwaters. Aside from the U.S., the list of death penalty nations includes Somalia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, North Korea, Cuba, China, Iran, and Uganda. Beacons of liberty they are not.

My friend and former boss, the late Lieutenant Governor Catherine Baker Knoll was a proud, vocal, and unwavering death penalty opponent. She believed that opposition to the death penalty was a natural extension of her views as a pro-life Democrat. A rare breed among politicians, Knoll correctly and consistently felt that being “pro-life” extended beyond birth and throughout the course of life.

One of the greatest moments of my political career occurred while working as her aide in Harrisburg. One morning Knoll encountered a young person holding a silent vigil in protest of Pennsylvania’s death penalty law on the Capitol steps. The Lieutenant Governor went to the young man and told him that she stood with him. A nearby reporter witnessed the exchange and the Harrisburg Patriot ran a front page photo the next day mentioning how her position was not in line with that of Governor Ed Rendell, a death penalty advocate. Despite angering the governor, Knoll was undeterred and made no apologies for her actions.

Following the examples set by O’Malley and Knoll, the time is right to build a new coalition of Americans committed to ending the death penalty. It simply makes ideological sense for conservatives, liberals, and libertarians of all stripes to broadly agree to a permanent, national death penalty ban. There are clear reasons why Americans subscribing to these divergent ideologies should find common ground on this issue.

Conservatives should be concerned not only because support for the death penalty is in conflict with a pro-life position, but also because the death penalty is extremely expensive. A 2008 study found that due to the appeals process, California taxpayers spend $137 million per year to maintain their death penalty system. That cost would be reduced to just $11.5 million annually by instead issuing life sentences without parole.

Libertarians, whose entire ideology is defined by the need to limit and downsize the powers of government, should be natural death penalty opponents. It is inconceivable to imagine a greater expression of the extreme and awesome power of the state than the government’s ability to terminate life. Government cannot create life; therefore, it seems irrational to allow it the power to destroy it.

Lastly, it is impossible to believe that any diligent liberal can support capital punishment given what we know about the failure of the death penalty to deter crime, its incongruent application to the poor and to minorities, and the cruel and unusual process by which the sentence is carried out.

Maryland’s decision to rectify a policy with legitimate life or death consequences has the opportunity to spread throughout the nation, cutting across traditional ideological and partisan lines. The responsibility of moving the political and policy mountains necessary to end the death penalty both nationwide and in the states is on our shoulders. Will we rise the occasion to write a new chapter of Profiles in Courage, or will we continue allowing a morally, ethically, and financially bankrupt policy to remain a stain on our nation’s conscience? I continue to believe that our country is simply too great and our people are simply too good to allow the ugly, brutish, and morally dubious status quo to prevail.

Category: General

    3 Comments so far

  1. Dick Miller says:

    Nathan — The only way we can promote the end of the death penalty is by doing what you did in writing an excellent article. These 110 will need strong support at election time.

  2. Bob says:

    Nathan, this can be your first day issue upon election as Governor of PA.

  3. Tony West says:

    Execution serves no good & achieves much harm.

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