What is surprising is the list of conservative leaders who have joined Paul in asking Texas Gov. Rick Perry to reduce Panetti’s sentence to life in prison. Individuals like tough-on-crime former Virginia attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, and Gary Bauer, president of the faith-and-families group American Values, recently signed a letter to that end. They note that “we must be on guard that such an extraordinary government sanction not be used against a person who is mentally incapable of rational thought.”

There’s some evidence the larger conservative movement is also rethinking its knee-jerk support for the death penalty. In 1994, Republicans favored the practice by an enormous 73-point margin. Twenty years later, that gap has narrowed by 19 points; a fifth of Republicans now say they’re “not in favor” of the death penalty for convicted murderers…

It’s not at all clear that conservatives’ attitudes are headed for a tipping point. In the poll linked earlier, three out of four Republicans still say they’re in favor of the death penalty. Will a majority ever switch sides to oppose it? “Frankly, we’re a long way from there,” says the ACU’s Nolan. “But among conservative leaders there’s more and more concern, and I think they will help prompt discussion among conservatives so that it won’t just be a lockstep support of this awesome power being ceded to government.”