Give Them Death: Three Leading Democratic Candidates Support Capital Punishment

When Clinton, Obama and Edwards took the stage before a mostly African-American crowd in Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Monday night, they came brimming with concern for the plight of black America. From the disproportionate effects of the subprime loan crisis to the racially drawn pitfalls of U.S. healthcare, the black community, said Edwards, "is hurt worse by poverty than any community in America. And it's our responsibility, not just for the African-American community, but for America, as a nation, to take on this moral challenge."

Politicians like to see moral challenges when it's convenient. The candidates have labeled the war in Iraq, global warming and the economy "moral challenges" before various audiences in the past few months. But there's one topic the leading Dems systematically exclude from their morality crusade, one that begged to be addressed before an African-American audience in a Southern state: the death penalty.

It's not news that African-Americans are disproportionately represented on death row. While 12 percent of the country is African-American, more than 40 percent of the country's death row population is black -- and although blacks and whites are murder victims in nearly equal numbers, 80 percent of the prisoners executed since the death penalty was reinstated were convicted for murders in which the victim was white. Study upon study in states across the country have discovered racial bias at every stage of the death penalty process, including one that found that the more "stereotypically black" a defendant is perceived to be, the more likely that person is to be sentenced to death. Add to that the fact that over 20 percent of black defendants who have been executed were convicted by all-white juries, and the racial reality of the death penalty becomes impossible to ignore.

Sure, all three candidates have given nod to our racist criminal justice system from time to time. At the South Carolina debate, Barack Obama acknowledged it as "something that we have to talk about," specifically, the fact that "African-Americans and whites ... are arrested at very different rates, are convicted at very different rates [and] receive very different sentences." Edwards, speaking out on the case of the Jena 6, last fall, said, "As someone who grew up in the segregated South, I feel a special responsibility to speak out on racial intolerance." Even Hillary has labeled the incarceration boom that followed passage of her husband's crime bill -- for which she lobbied hard -- "unacceptable." When it comes to criminal justice, she said in Iowa, "I want to have a thorough review of all of the penalties."

Still, not one leading Democrat is about to make criminal justice reform -- let alone the death penalty -- central to his or her platform.

Clinton, Obama and Edwards all support capital punishment. It's a position you'd be hard pressed to find on their websites, and they might not be bragging about it the way they might have in, say, 2000. Or 1996. Or 1992, the year their party's pro-death penalty stance was codified in its official party platform and then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton made a campaign trail detour to Arkansas, where he presided over the execution of mentally damaged prisoner Ricky Ray Rector. Nevertheless, all three hold on to their pro-death penalty stance, as have virtually all leading Democrats running for office in the past 20 years.

Why so much longstanding support for capital punishment? It is the easiest way to combat the quadrennial charge that Democrats are "soft on crime."

Opposing the death penalty used to be one way for Democrats to distinguish themselves from their rivals on the campaign trail -- at least before Michael Dukakis was lampooned after a 1988 debate in which he failed to wax bloodthirsty when asked if he'd want to execute a theoretical rapist/murderer if the victim was his wife, Kitty. The years that followed saw the Democrats cozy up to capital punishment: The Clinton era brought a sweeping expansion of the federal death penalty, thanks to the Crime Bill, and a sharp cut in death row appeals, thanks to the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. State executions spiked in the late '90s, more than doubling between 1996 and 1999.

But times have changed. Since 2000, executions have been in steady decline, and not because of the Democratic Party establishment. The Supreme Court has outlawed the execution of mentally retarded persons and prisoners convicted as juveniles; a revolution in DNA testing has put wrongful convictions on the front pages of newspapers nationwide; and in December, New Jersey became the first state in the country to pass legislation abolishing the death penalty in 40 years. Currently, executions are stalled altogether, as states await a ruling in the landmark Supreme Court case Baze v. Rees, which examines lethal injection as it is carried out in 36 states.

Given the climate, you would think the time is ripe for the Dems to reconsider the death penalty -- perhaps even dust it off as a way to differentiate themselves from the Republicans this November.

You would be wrong.

Obama, Edwards and Clinton have remained practically mute about the death penalty in the past few months, reiterating their support only when asked -- and giving heavily qualified answers. Take Obama, for starters. In a 2004 debate against Alan Keyes, his opponent in the race for U.S. Senate, Obama declared that "there are extraordinarily heinous crimes -- terrorism, the harm of children -- in which [the death penalty] may be appropriate." "We have to have this ultimate sanction in certain circumstances," he said. "I think it's important that we preserve that." Obama repeated his stance in his 2006 memoir, The Audacity of Hope, where he invoked crimes "so heinous ... that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage."

On the campaign trail, Obama has continued to characterize the death penalty as a necessary evil, while also boasting about his role in trying to perfect it. "I am somebody who led on reforming a death penalty system that was broken in Illinois -- that nobody thought was good politics, but was the right thing to do," he said on the night of the South Carolina debate.

In fact, it was good politics. Obama's primary role in his much-touted death penalty reform was a successful push to videotape police interrogations in a state where violently coerced confessions had sent at least 13 men to death row. Republican Gov. George Ryan -- who actually co-chaired execution kingpin George W. Bush's first election campaign -- had had a moratorium in place since January 2000. By the time Obama's legislation passed, four innocent men had already been pardoned -- and Ryan had emptied Illinois' death row. In fact, before the scandal of Illinois' death penalty system broke -- a scandal born in police interrogation rooms on Chicago's South Side, where Obama had been a community organizer -- Obama seemed happy to bolster capital punishment in his state. As a freshly elected state senator in 1997, he voted to expand the death penalty to include the murderers of senior citizens or the disabled. If the Democrats were truly outraged at the injustice of the American justice system, Obama would face serious questions about his support of state-sanctioned murder and not about what went up his nose decades ago.

Today, the Obama camp likes to paint its man as anti-death penalty with a few exceptions. "Obama opposes the death penalty except for terrorists, serial killers and child-murderers," two reporters wrote in the Hill last spring, "but his campaign added that he does not support the death penalty as it is currently administered in this country."

Or, as one blogger wrote last year, "In a nutshell: He's pro-death penalty, but he is also pro-let's not execute the wrong guy."

Who isn't "pro-let's not execute the wrong guy"?

If Obama's Chicago years dampened his support for the death penalty, one would think Edwards' Senate tenure and time in the courtroom would have turned him off to the death penalty altogether. His years in office saw the exonerations of three death row prisoners from North Carolina's death row, a 2001 study finding deep racial bias in the state's death penalty system, and a historic vote in 2003 that would make the state senate the first legislative body in the South to pass moratorium legislation. Yet he held on to his support for the death penalty.

When Edwards was asked at the Yearly Kos convention last summer to reconcile his "two Americas" rhetoric with support of a punishment that disproportionately condemns poor people of color to die (full disclosure: I was the questioner), Edwards gave a lengthy answer that, boiled down, called for death to killers of children. More recently, on NPR's Talk of the Nation, responding to a caller concerned about his support for capital punishment, Edwards acknowledged the racial bias, the problem of wrongful convictions, unequal legal representation -- he even talked about the trouble with "death qualified juries." Nevertheless, he defended his pro-death penalty stance.

And then there's Hillary. Perhaps even more than Obama or Edwards, Hillary has avoided discussing capital punishment on the campaign trail. As a senator representing a state that got rid of the death penalty during her tenure, at the same time that the Ashcroft and Gonzales-led Department of Justice sought to prosecute more federal capital cases in New York, Hillary has had precious little to say about the death penalty in the past few years. She supports it, of course -- has for years -- and she, like her opponents, also supports "reforms." In 2003, she co-sponsored the Innocence Protection Act, to make DNA testing available for individuals sentenced to death under federal law. Penance, perhaps, for having helped to curtail death row appeals in the '90s.

Regardless of who gets the Democratic nomination, the death penalty is certain to be off the table in the general election, where tough talk on terrorism will trump domestic criminal justice policy discussions. "I doubt that candidates from either side will raise the death penalty issue, though it might come up as a question," says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "Because this issue has become so multisided, each position on the death penalty has drawbacks. If you support it, you have to admit its flaws. If you oppose it, you may not raise it for fear of being out of the mainstream."

As opposition to state-sanctioned killing becomes more and more mainstream, however, the Democrats should be able to muster the courage to come out against it too. But there's no sign that that is a "moral challenge" they are ready to take on. Rather, the pro-death penalty, pro-"reform" stance occupied by Obama, Edwards and Clinton is little more than a gift to capital punishment supporters who claim the machinery of death just needs some fine-tuning.


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