|Democratic presidential candidates, from left, Bernie Sanders,|
Martin O’Malley, Hillary Clinton, November 2016.
Less than 3 decades ago, calling for an end to the death penalty on the campaign trail could sink a candidate. Now, with public support for executions waning, Democrats are making it a key issue
A generation ago, opposition to the death penalty ended political careers.
Now, the 3 candidates sparring for the Democratic nomination are questioning the effectiveness and application of the death penalty.
Among them, only former secretary of state Hillary Clinton opposes abolishing the practice, and only in certain cases. Former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley signed into law a repeal of the death penalty in his state in 2013 and commuted sentences of the state's remaining death row inmates in 2014. And Vermont senator Bernie Sanders has been a vocal opponent of the practice as matter or principle and policy.
As the candidates prepare to square off at a Democratic forum in South Carolina on Friday evening, the issue of the death penalty has emerged on the campaign trail as a point of contention in a race that has swerved to the left.
While in New Hampshire last week, Clinton said she did not support abolition and that "there are certain egregious cases" which merit the punishment. She expressed concern that the practice "has been too frequently applied, and too often in a discriminatory way". She added that it is an issue she believes is best left to the states.
After the event, Clinton expanded on her remarks in an interview with a New Hampshire news network. "We ought to reserve it for terrorism and related incidents that are, like the Boston Marathon bomber," she told NH1. "So that's why I think we should be really limiting it but not abolishing it when it comes to applying it."
O'Malley, who called the capital sentencing of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev "ineffective as a deterrent", immediately responded to Clinton's comments, declaring that as president he would work to "build consensus to end it nationally".
"The death penalty is [a] racially biased, ineffective deterrent to crime, and we must abolish it," O'Malley said in a statement.
The following day, Sanders, Clinton's chief rival, took to the US Senate floor to declare that "the time is now for the United States to end capital punishment" and said ending the practice was the "right point of view".
"I would rather have our country stand side-by-side with European democracies rather than with countries like China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others who maintain the death penalty," he told his Senate colleagues.
"I think that those of us who want to set an example - who want to say that we have got to end the murders and the violence that we're seeing in our country and all over the world - should, in fact, be on the side of those of us who believe that we must end capital punishment in this country."
Several decades ago, views like this are believed to have sunk the White House ambitions of then-Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis.
In 1988, 1 presidential aspirants took the stage in Los Angeles for the 2nd debate of the election campaign.
"Governor,' began CNN anchor Bernard Shaw's famous question about the governor's wife. "If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?"
Dukakis replied: "No, I don't, Bernard, and I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life."
The moment scarred the Democratic party, tired of being pilloried by Republicans as "soft on crime".
4 years later, the Democratic presidential candidate, then-Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, would stop campaigning in New Hampshire to return home and personally oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a convicted murderer who was so mentally impaired that he requested the pecan pie served as his last meal be saved for "tomorrow". The move, many would speculate, was an attempt to show he was tough enough.
Public support for capital punishment peaked in 1994 - the year crime and drugs were top issues for voters, according to Gallup polling. But in the decades since then, as violent crime and murder rates have fallen, so too has support for the death penalty.
The most recent Gallup poll on the issue found that 61% of respondents still favored the death penalty for someone convicted of murder. However, Democrats are far less likely to support the death penalty than Republicans, respectively 49% versus 82%.
The prospect of executing an innocent person has raised efficacy questions around the practice, while the length and cost of the current appeals process has raised concerns about its economic efficiency. Meanwhile, politicians from both parties are calling for criminal justice reform and an end to the era of mass incarceration.
"That's where we are in the United States," said Diann Rust-Tierney, the executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "And it's coming up more in conversation as we try to figure out a nation how to move forward without the death penalty."
She said the debate over the death penalty has lost some of its political potency as a preponderance of evidence suggests executions are not an effective deterrent to crime.
Since 2007, 6 states have abolished the death penalty, a sign of the growing backlash against the practice. In May, Nebraska became the 1st conservative state in 40 years to repeal its death penalty law, although the law has since been put on hold by a referendum campaign to reverse it.
"We've seen in state after state," Rust-Tierney said. "As Justice Blackmun wrote in Callins v Collins 'I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.' We have tried to get this right and we can't. So the conversation is changing."
When marshaling support to end public executions in Maryland, O'Malley framed the debate as a matter of public policy rather than one of moral consequence. The practice doesn't prevent crime and its not cost-efficient, he argued then.
At the signing of the bill, O'Malley said: "We have a responsibility to stop doing the things that are wasteful and ineffective."
How big an issue the death penalty will become in the primary will likely depend on Clinton's challengers, both of whom are eager to tout their relative progressiveness and shine a light between their platforms and hers.
Opposing the death penalty gives O'Malley and Sanders a small comparative advantage against Clinton among progressive voters, said Elizabeth Smith, an associate professor of political science at the University of South Dakota. But, she said, the issue is so inconsequential to voters that it's highly unlikely to make a dent in the primary race. And in fact, should either of them clinch the nomination, their abolitionist view could hurt them in the general election.
"In the primary, opposing the death penalty is not a huge risk because it's not a voting issue for a lot of people," Smith said. "When you move into the general election, it can be a huge risk."
Still, a question in Friday's forum could reveal just how far the political dynamics have shifted on the issue since Clinton's husband first ran for president.
"Being for the death penalty is symbolic of being tough and crime," Smith said. "And politicians have been winning elections for being tough on crime for a very long time."
What the death penalty looks like in the US today:
Along with the federal government, a majority of US states (32) have the death penalty. Over the past 4 years, governors in 4 states have halted executions, citing questions over the fairness of capital punishment, among other issues. 18 states and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty outright.
A 10-year, county-wide moratorium on capital punishment was in effect from 1967-1977, but the death penalty was reinstated in January of that year. Nearly 1,500 people have been executed since - more than 1/3 of them in Texas.
Years death penalty was abolished by state: Michigan (1846), Wisconsin (1853), Maine (1887), Minnesota (1911), Alaska, Hawaii (1957), Vermont (1964), Iowa, West Virginia (1965), North Dakota (1973), District of Columbia (1981), Massachusetts, Rhode Island (1984), New Jersey, New York (2007), New Mexico (2009), Illinois (2011), Connecticut (2012), Maryland (2013). Moratoria: Oregon (2011), Colorado (2013), Washington (2014), Pennsylvania (2015).
Nebraska lawmakers abolished the death penalty in May 2015, but a petition drive to overturn their decision succeeded in October. The issue will be put to voters in 2016.
The federal government has put to death 3 people since 1977. [source: Death Penalty Information Center]
Source: Associated Press, November 6, 2015