Is There Any Movement Among Presidential Candidates on the Death Penalty?

This week, the Supreme Court upheld the use of an Oklahoma execution drug; the ruling was understandably reported as a “defeat for death penalty foes,” but many found a silver lining in the dissent offered by Justice Breyer, who said in his dissent that the court should be ruling on whether the practice itself is constitutional. “Rather than tinker with these questions of how we should kill, we should be asking the more fundamental and the larger question of whether we as society should still be executing anyone at all,” said the American Civil Liberties Union's Cassandra Stubbs in response to the decision. Justice Kennedy, considered a swing vote on these issues, also questioned in a recent case whether solitary confinement is unconstitutionally cruel.


Thanks to the criminal justice reform movement, which has been picking up steam in the past few years, opposition to the death penalty among the public has been rising. Note, for example, that Pew's polling finds that the majority of self-identified Democrats now oppose capital punishment, something that hasn't happened for decades; there's also a decline in support among both independents and Republicans:

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We researched the positions of the declared presidential candidates, creating the following overview of where they stand on the practice of capital punishment. Out of declared candidates, 3 out of 4 Democratic candidates are opposed to the death penalty, while not a single Republican has declared their objection to it, despite increasing opposition across the country.

THE REPUBLICANS

Jeb Bush: Bush, who finally officially entered the race last month, is such a strong advocate of capital punishment that he actually worked as Governor of Florida to speed the process up. In a 2000 op-ed, he defended the state's use of capital punishment in an op-ed titled “Justice Is Working.”

Ted Cruz: Cruz, as solicitor general of Texas, defended the death penalty against challenges, work that he later cited as a Senator. But as a lawyer in private practice, he argued that the criminal justice system may not be trustworthy in administering executions. It appears that Cruz has shifted to the right in order to please Republican voters.

Rand Paul: Unlike his father, who is a death penalty opponent, the younger Paul has voiced some skepticism of the practice but ultimately fell back to a states rights position, saying it is up to individual states to decide what they do.

Marco Rubio: Rubio, like Bush, is not only a supporter of the death penalty but has complained that the appeals process is slowing down executions.

Ben Carson: Carson has been unclear about his personal position on the topic. In his book America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great, he engaged in a philosophical debate about the topic without actually staking out a position: “If one believes that killing is wrong in all instances, be it executing a mass murderer or aborting an unborn fetus, it will be very difficult to negotiate a compromise on the issues of capital punishment or abortion. If, on the other hand, an individual is opposed to capital punishment simply because of the great expense involved in each case, and only opposed to late-term abortion, that person would be quite capable of yielding to compromise.”

Carly Fiorina: Fiorina told the Christian Coalition voter guide in 2010 that she supports the death penalty under certain conditions.

Mike Huckabee: Huckabee is such a robust supporter of the death penalty that he even told a questioner in 2007 that Jesus on the cross would've supported capital punishment.

Rick Santorum: Santorum, despite being a very outspoken Catholic, disagrees with the Church on the death penalty, supporting it.

George Pataki: Pataki actually signed a law to bring the death penalty back to New York, fulfilling a campaign pledge he made on the trail.

Lindsey Graham: Graham's an advocate of the death penalty.

Rick Perry: Perry defended the death penalty on national television in the wake of a botched execution in neighboring Oklahoma. During the 2011 GOP presidential debate, the crowd loudly cheered his defense of capital punishment.

Donald Trump: Trump once took out an ad seeking the death penalty for a teenager who was later acquitted. He more recently has been urging more use of capital punishment.

Bobby Jindal: Jindal approves of the death penalty, even defending the use of an execution drug that takes 26 minutes to kill someone.

Chris Christie: Christie supported doomed legislation that attempted to revive capital punishment in New Jersey.

THE DEMOCRATS

Lincoln Chafee: Chafee opposed the death penalty as Governor of Rhode Island, and also refused a federal court request to transfer a prisoner to federal custody, out of fears that the prisoner would face execution.

Hillary Clinton: Clinton has frequently voiced concern about the death penalty being unfairly applied, but she is a supporter of the practice, moving further right from her days as a young lawyer. In 2000, when she ran for the Senate, she made a point of talking about her support for capital punishment.

Martin O'Malley: O'Malley not only repealed Maryland's death penalty but acted to commute the sentences of the state's remaining death row inmates. He has maintained this stand during his presidential campaign, opposing the death penalty for convicted the Boston bomber.

Bernie Sanders: Sanders is a long-time opponent of capital punishment. On a recent radio show Q & A he stated, “I think, as with so much violence in this world today, I just don't think the state itself, whether it's the state government or federal government, should be in the business of killing people. So when you have people who have done terrible, terrible things they're gonna spend the rest of their lives in jail, and that's a pretty harsh punishment. But I'm against capital punishment.”

LIKELY CANDIDATES

Scott Walker: Wisconsin's Republican Governor Scott Walker was a one-time opponent of the death penalty but reportedly has supported it since at least 2006.

Jim Webb: Former Democratic Senator Jim Webb reportedly opposes the death penalty in “all but extreme cases.”

John Kasich: Kasich, the Republican Governor of Ohio, has frequently granted clemency to those on death row, but overall supports the process, saying it gives the families of those grieving “closure...[to] see justice done.”

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