Heather Beaudoin, leader of a conservative group fighting to end capital punishment, found new support for her cause at this month’s annual CPAC gathering of Republican activists. In a conversation with TCR, she reports a growing willingness among conservatives to embrace justice reform.
Heather Beaudoin is a Michigan native who has spent the last decade working with conservative and evangelical communities to repeal state death penalty laws. She is now the National Director of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty (CCATDP), a project of the Brooklyn-based organization Equal Justice USA, which grew out of her work with the Montana Abolition Coalition—a group that also included advocates from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Montana Human Rights Network, the Montana Association of Christians, and the Montana Catholic Conference.
Since 2013, the CCATDP has established a presence at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where it was joined this year by former Nebraska State Sen. Colby Coash, and Dale Brumfield of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. In a chat with TCR Deputy Editor Victoria Mckenzie as the 2018 CPAC drew to a close, Beaudoin revealed that one of the most persuasive anti-death penalty arguments for conservatives is that the government can’t be trusted to operate a fair and efficient system of capital punishment. She also discussed why—even in the aftermath of outrage over the Florida school shootings—she’s found reason to hope that anti-death penalty forces will secure victories in some GOP-led states.
The Crime Report: The death penalty is an issue that deeply concerns the left, but perhaps for different reasons. Did you find that liberals tend to be a liability in terms of partnership when you are trying to engage conservative communities?
Beaudoin: No, not at all. Equal Justice USA is our parent organization, which is nonpartisan and does a lot with the progressive community as well. When I started doing this work in Montana, I was working on the ground trying to pass the anti-death penalty bill there. And I noticed that we did have a lot of conservatives, current and former legislators, lobbyists and GOP state party officials who were against the death penalty— but they didn’t come to the [Montana Abolition Coalition] table for the same reasons as the ACLU. They felt a little bit like outsiders.
The ACLU was talking about human rights and things like that, and of course really sympathizing with the person who was on death row and the death row family members– and that’s not the same reason that conservatives come to it. Conservatives wanted to talk about limited government, and cost, and their pro-life views.
Obviously, a lot of times the ACLU and the Republican Party do not work together well. So we felt like, let’s create a space where we can talk about the reasons we as conservatives care about this issue. Let’s find a way to work together, but sort of have our own voice.
TCR: Can you talk about the conversations you had with Montana law enforcement?
Beaudoin: [Conservatives and law enforcement] were groups that I had a little bit of experience with, and groups that were traditionally in favor of the death penalty. In terms of law enforcement…I would literally sit down with anyone who was willing to talk with me. I would travel all over the state of Montana and have coffee with chiefs of police, county sheriffs, and county attorneys and do a lot of listening, to hear—when I talk to legislators I often hear “well we have to have the death penalty because it’s a priority for law enforcement,” (or) “we have to have it because it keeps the public safe.”
So I would ask them, where does it fall on your list of priorities, especially given the drastic cost of the death penalty? Is it worth it to you, the amount of money that we’re spending when we’re seeing counties that are bankrupted by a single death penalty case?
And they would say, no—we would rather have more officers on the street, or we would rather have more training for our officers, or better equipment. It was really fascinating that even when they supported the death penalty, they really acknowledged it’s not an effective public safety tool, it’s not a deterrent. And many of them were willing to speak out. I spoke to a lot of folks who worked at the prison, and talked about the effect that carrying out a death penalty had on the [staff], which is something that I never considered. I learned so much, and then was able to bring some of those voices to the table at legislative hearings so that legislators could consider that not all law enforcement feel the same— certainly there are law enforcement folks who believe we should have the death penalty, but not all of them.
TCR: Do you continue to focus on law enforcement?
Beaudoin: Not as much. Most of my focus is on conservatives and evangelicals. We have a group called Equal Justice USA Evangelical Network… I just spoke at the National Association of Evangelicals’ Christian Student Leadership Conference, [and] we do a lot with the Christian Community Development Association. So we’re kind of all over the place— we’ve had events at Wheaton College, we’ve had an event at Calvin College. That’s my favorite part of the work.
TCR: I caught the tail end of a panel via livestream which concluded with Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts’ comments on the importance of upholding the death penalty in the interest of public safety.
Beaudoin: Nebraska is a really interesting case, and Gov. Pete Ricketts in particular, because that was a state where they voted to repeal the death penalty, and there was a Republican-led effort by [former Senator] Colby Coash, who was with us at CPAC this time. The legislature there passed it with overwhelming Republican support. Governor Pete Ricketts vetoed it, and then [the legislature] had enough votes to override the veto.
Then, he and his father funded an effort to get the death penalty back on the ballot in Nebraska and send it to the general public, and they were able to do that. That’s how strongly he feels about the death penalty. And then of course it was reinstated. We lost, and now there is the death penalty on the books in Nebraska, although they don’t have a way to carry it out.
TCR: Let’s talk about Ohio and Pennsylvania, which are northern “outliers” when it comes to the death penalty.
Beaudoin: Ohio is of course a state that has a lot of upcoming executions, and we’re hopeful that Gov. John Kasich will be watching and listening and paying attention, and realizing that there are conservative and evangelical voices who do not support these executions being carried out.
I do work with the Equal Justice USA Evangelical Network…. there are plenty of groups doing really good work on the ground in Ohio and have been for a long time. There’s a group called OTSE, Ohioans to Stop Executions. What we’re doing is trying to raise up conservative and evangelical voices. We’re going to be having an event [either at an evangelical college, or at Ohio State], just to try to show Gov. Kasich that this is not an issue that just liberals are speaking out against—but that people who think like him, and are of the same mind, are also standing up to say “We don’t agree with this.” To say it’s the right thing to do to call off these executions— they should not go forward.
Pennsylvania [is] another place that carries a lot of baggage. I was at a couple of events at CPAC with folks from Pennsylvania who also understand and care about the cost of the death penalty—and certainly they should get it, because they’ve really poured so much money into their capital punishment system, and now are not executing anyone.
TCR: One of Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial candidates, Scott Wagner, has recently stated he wants the death penalty for school shooters.
Beaudoin: It’s always hard when we hear politicians who maybe haven’t taken a real deep dive [into] the way the system works, kind of painting themselves into a corner— because there’s so much to learn. Like we saw in Nebraska, legislators, when they were given the opportunity to learn more and find out the facts, voted against the death penalty. Of course the general public doesn’t have that luxury, to be an expert on every issue. And so we didn’t win there
The thing that I tell people at CPAC, the biggest thing we talk about is [that] it’s one thing to support the death penalty philosophically or in theory—or even feel like morally, it’s OK. That morally, if you take a life, your life should be taken. We have plenty of supporters who feel that way. But when they look at the way the system is carried out… they look at the cost, they look at the fact that innocent people are sentenced to death— basically, it’s not worth it, and it’s time to let it go.
TCR: Have you ever gotten close enough to Gov. Ricketts to understand why he’s so committed to executions?
Beaudoin: That’s a good question. I do know that he lost a loved one to murder, and so that’s something that a lot of us have thought about— is this something that is pretty personal to him because he’s experienced that loss? I don’t know, and I don’t want to speak for him, but that’s possible.
We’ve worked with victims’ family members on both sides of this issue, and the thing that I take away, and certainly when I’m standing at a table at CPAC one of the things I hear in favor of the death penalty is that we do it for victims’ family members— especially in the wake of the Parkland shooting, right? When you’re dealing with all these family members who have lost loved ones.
Something that I found that was really mind-blowing to me when I started this work is that the death penalty often harms victims’ family members. It gives them this false promise that the death penalty is going to be carried out. And most likely it’s not— the sentence will be overturned, or the person will die of natural causes in prison, because the process takes so long. And we want it to take a long time, because we don’t want innocent people to be executed.
TCR: Have you taken on any issues you feel are “adjacent” to executions, for example the conditions for prisoners on death row?
Beaudoin: We haven’t… something that we’ve certainly put out statements on is botched executions, which we just saw in Alabama. We again see that as a failure of government to carry out executions well, and so many of these execution protocols are shrouded in secrecy. We don’t know where they’re getting the drugs, sometimes the drug combinations they’re using are untested, we don’t know the credentials of the staff who are carrying out the execution process.
So that, to us as conservatives, is despicable— there’s not transparency in government at all.
TCR: Is there a prevailing reason that drives people to your table at CPAC?
Beaudoin: I would say it’s probably a tie. Number one is that we don’t trust the government to deliver our mail, why on earth would we trust them to handle a system that takes the lives of its own citizens? That’s what I hear most frequently at CPAC. “I believe in limited government, I don’t trust the government to get this right.”
And then I hear about the cost. I’m always happy to see that more and more people understand that the death penalty is more expensive, because when I started doing this work back in 2008, that was something that folks just flat out wouldn’t believe.
Now people realize that it’s true, it does cost so much more. Of course folks at CPAC, all of them are fiscal conservatives and so to them this is another big bloated government program that is very costly— and what’s the return that we receive?
I would say probably limited government is the number one that I hear, and cost is the next one. Innocence is probably a third.
TCR: Where are you focusing your efforts this year?
Beaudoin: There are three states right now that have death penalty repeal bills that feel very possible and that we’re hopeful about, and all three are led by Republican legislators. There’s Washington, New Hampshire, and Utah. So we’re sort of sitting on the edge of our seats and doing what we can to push those over the edge, and of course those are the work of the state groups that have been pushing it for years. We’ll know within the next month or two whether those will go or not go…but they’ve certainly made progress.
TCR: What was interest like at the conference compared to previous years?
Beaudoin: I really do feel like this year felt different in terms of criminal justice reform. I felt a lot more hopeful this year than I have in the past— not just in terms of the death penalty, but in terms of all of the criminal justice topics that were discussed. It just felt like there was real momentum and a different sort of hope. I went to two different panels that were on criminal justice, and Right on Crime had a reception. And those were well attended.
TCR: Which panels were you able to catch?
Beaudoin: There was one about overzealous prosecutors that I loved. Of course there are great prosecutors in our country, and then there are prosecutors to whom it doesn’t matter if you’re guilty or innocent: if they decide that they’re going to convict you, it’s going to happen. And that’s exactly why you can’t support the death penalty. It was encouraging for me to hear folks in the conservative realm talking about problems like that within our justice system.
And then there was a panel on women being in chains during labor, who are inmates. Because I’m so death-penalty focused, there were a lot of things they were talking about that I didn’t know. There were women from Kentucky, and I understand Kentucky is doing a lot around criminal justice reform generally. We’ve always felt that it is a state where we should be able to pass anti-death penalty legislation. We’ve had lots of interest from Republicans there, but have just never been able to quite push it over the edge.
TCR: Did you see your own efforts reflected in either of the panels you attended?
Beaudoin: The one about prosecutors, absolutely— it could have been an anti-death penalty panel because of everything they were saying. There were people there who had direct experience with being railroaded by the criminal justice system. And that’s something that I’m realizing, is that sometimes it takes folks having a personal run-in with the criminal justice system for them to finally wake up and realize—whoa, this is a little scary. I think until you know someone that’s been touched by the justice system or until you yourself have been, it’s easy to say— we have a great system. Which we do, but it’s not perfect.
And there are very flawed individuals who have a lot of power in the system. So, people were telling personal stories… and when people were coming up to the table, they were telling us stories too about terrible things that had happened to them.
And the one on women’s rights in prison too, certainly—talking about human dignity of people behind bars, and how we should treat them with respect because they’re created in the image of God, and because we believe in redemption.
I heard that over and over again at CPAC this time about criminal justice reform, that no one is beyond redemption. And that’s why I do this work, that’s why I feel personally passionate about it. I believe with my whole heart, that no one is beyond redemption. So certainly I saw a lot of our messaging, even when they weren’t talking about the death penalty.
TCR: Can you help me understand what the resistance is to repealing the death penalty, among conservatives who still support it?
Beaudoin: So, it always goes this way: that there are just some people who deserve to die. That’s almost always what I hear. And the Parkland shooting came up a lot this weekend at CPAC, because people are feeling it in their gut, that this is horrific—and it is. So I think that often, people feel like the only way we can respond to this, the only answer we have, is to take away that person’s life. That’s the only thing that will suffice.
And so we say, we understand that. If you ever listen to floor debates on bills like this, like in Nebraska, you’ll hear our opposition bring up horrible case after horrible case, and tell all of the gruesome details of how people were tortured and killed. We get that— we realize there are people in the world [who] commit really terrible crimes. But we cannot legislate based on that. We can have that gut-level reaction as humans, we can feel that this is wrong and this person deserves to be held accountable, absolutely. But we cannot only get folks who have committed really terrible crimes and are guilty, and not get folks like Randy Steidl, the death row exoneree from Illinois, and 160 others like him who’ve been convicted and sentenced to death wrongfully.
And so that’s what we try to say—take a step back, and let’s not have the conversation about what people deserve. Let’s have the conversation about “can we get it right, and do we get it right?” And if we’re able to get people to that place, where they can say “I’m willing to be rational for a minute”—that’s when we can say, let’s look at this logically, let’s look at the facts, let’s look at what is a good public policy around this—instead of what we feel people deserve after something horrible.
Victoria Mckenzie is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.