Friday, 25 January 2008

Give Them Death: 3 Leading Democratic Candidates Support Capital

Jan. 25


Give Them Death: 3 Leading Democratic Candidates Support Capital

Opposing the death penalty used to distinguish Democrats from Republicans.
Now, across party lines, death is just another day at the office.

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 % 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 % 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

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 1st election campaign -- had
had a moratorium in place since January 2000. By the time Obama's
legislation passed, 4 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.

(source: Column, Liliana Segura,

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