As a state reporter for The Oklahoman, I witnessed four executions in Oklahoma. Later, while working for The Associated Press, I interviewed a Tennessee mass murderer behind bars and was on the witness list for his scheduled execution. However, it got called off at the last minute.
Given my experience with the subject, I'm definitely drawn to news reports on the death penalty. A headline that caught my attention today:
New conservative group wants death penalty repealed
The story is in the Orlando Sentinel and relates to a Florida group that has formed:
A group of Florida conservatives is joining a national organization in the fight to abolish the death penalty, saying it is too “costly, cumbersome and error-prone” and violates conservative values, such as the sanctity of life.
Florida Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, said Wednesday other punishments such as life in prison are more fiscally responsible. Studies have shown the death penalty, with its years of appeals, is more costly.
“The death penalty is one of the most expensive boondoggles that has ever been forced upon the taxpayers,” said Republican James Purdy, public defender of the 7th Judicial Court, which includes Volusia, Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns counties.
The group announced its formation outside the Orange County Courthouse, the same spot where Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala, a Democrat, said earlier this year she wouldn’t be seeking the death penalty during her term, laying out many of the same arguments her conservative counterparts did.
Ayala’s decision sparked outrage in conservative circles and caused Republican Gov. Rick Scott to strip her of more than 20 death penalty cases.
OK, how many references to "conservative" or "conservatives" did you count in those first five paragraphs? I believe "five" is the right answer. But still, I have no idea whether we're talking about fiscal conservatives or social conservatives or some combination.
Keep reading, and the story remains rather vague. Specifically, who are these anti-death-penalty conservatives? What exact issues characterize them as, you know, conservatives?
There is this bit of helpful background that raises the question of whether the conservative group has a liberal financial backer:
Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty is part of Equal Justice USA, which has reportedly received funding from liberal billionaire George Soros.
Just when I thought the Sentinel might fail to provide any insight at all into the group's members, these three paragraphs offer a bit of redemption:
Brian Empric, past president of the Orange County Young Republicans, said the death penalty violates his Catholic views.
“Part of my faith is grounded in the fact that all life is sacred, even the life of those that committed the gravest of crimes,” he said. “It’s a faith that’s grounded in mercy and healing, not punishment for its own sake.”
Purdy has a similar view. “We believe that as Republicans and conservatives we should be pro-life from womb to tomb,” he said.
But overall, this story proved disappointing to me.
It lacked balance. The paper afforded space for arguments to one side and generally rushed past the other. The only pro-death-penalty source quoted in detail: a murder victim's father. And given his grief and anger, I'm not certain he's the best source to make the case on that side.
The report also lacked context. Survey data on where conservative voters stand on the death penalty would have helped. Jaweed Kaleem of the Los Angeles Times had a nice trend piece back in April on why capital punishment seems to be losing momentum.
Finally, I'd love to know much more about the backgrounds — ages, religious affiliations, political leanings — of the "conservatives" fighting the death penalty in Florida.
I don't doubt that there's a good story here. I just don't think the Sentinel did the best job telling it.