"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Politics and the death penalty: for Clinton and Trump, safest stance may be silence

Neither candidate seems keen to take on the controversial topic of capital punishment in the 2016 election, despite waning public support for it

Donald J Trump phoned in to Fox & Friends in May 2015, shortly after 2 police officers were shot dead in Mississippi.

Presenter Steve Doocy wanted to know what an appropriate punishment for the killers would be.

"Well, it's the death penalty," Trump said airily. "We have people who are, these 2, animals who shot the cops ... the death penalty, it should be brought back and it should be brought back strong."

A month later, Trump announced he was running for president. He has barely said the words "death penalty" in public since, although a top adviser has called for Hillary Clinton's execution, saying she "should be put in the firing line and shot for treason".

Clinton only talks about capital punishment when pressed and then, clumsily. Unlike most of her own party - including running mate Tim Kaine - the Democrat supports death in the case of terrorists. She has said she would be happy if someone would outlaw execution. Someone else.

In campaign 2016, the safest stance on the ultimate punishment may be silence. Both candidates need to woo disaffected members of the other's party. Neither can afford to lose their own loyal base.

"Why bring it up if it's going to stir the pot if you don't have to?" said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior fellow at the University of Southern California's Sol Price School of Public Policy.

For the 1st time since 1972, the Democratic party platform advocates repealing the death penalty. Mainstream Republican opinion has begun to turn away from it, too. Executions and death sentences are down nationwide, while the number of exonerated death row inmates creeps upward.

The percentage of Americans who support the death penalty has been steadily declining since its high of 80% in the mid-1990s, although a comfortable majority - 61% according to Gallup, and 56% according to the Pew Research Center - still favor the use of capital punishment for a person convicted of murder.

And California - with the biggest death row in the country - could become the 6th state in recent years to do away with executions as voters there face dueling ballot measures in November, one to repeal the death penalty, the other to streamline it.

Trump has increasingly positioned himself as a law and order candidate. He doubled down on fear of immigrant criminals in his speech to the Republican national convention and recently said he supported "extreme vetting" of people from other countries. Yet he has so far shied away from promising grisly execution for murderers.

The main exception was a December speech to the New England Police Benevolent Association, a police officers' union, in which he promised an executive order mandating death sentences for cop-killers. (This would not work out, in any case; mandatory death sentences were rendered unconstitutional by a 1976 supreme court decision.)

Perhaps the most illuminating examples of Trump's death penalty position are the newspaper advertisements he took out in 1989 demanding death for five black and Latino teenagers - the so-called Central Park 5 - who were convicted of the rape and attempted murder of a woman that year. The 5 men were exonerated in 2002.

The full-page advertisements are classic Trump. Under the vast headline "BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!" is a lengthy screed, much of it in capital letters.

"I want to hate these muggers and murderers," Trump wrote. "They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes."

The Republican platform, recently ratified at the party's convention in Cleveland, contains just 2 sentences on the subject of capital punishment.

"The constitutionality of the death penalty is firmly settled by its explicit mention in the Fifth Amendment," it says. "With the murder rate soaring in our great cities, we condemn the Supreme Court's erosion of the right of the people to enact capital punishment in their states."

This reflects an emerging Republican critique of the death penalty, which more and more conservatives oppose, said Michael Radelet, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder who studies capital punishment.

The rising conservative critique is based on 3 pillars, the 1st of which is financial. "It costs a zillion dollars to send anybody to death row, so fiscal conservatives want to cut down on that money," Radelet said.

The 2nd, he said, is religious principle; the pope condemned capital punishment in his 2015 speech to Congress, and "if we get a survey of religious leaders in the US there's no question that the overwhelming majority would stand opposed to the death penalty."

The 3rd pillar, according to Radelet, is a simpler attitude of distrust in governmental efficiency, summarized as "hell, the government can't even fill a pothole properly", so why should it be trusted with the power of life and death? None of these arguments appear to carry any weight with the party's nominee. Trump has stayed largely silent on the subject, with the exception of his remarks on Fox & Friends, and a 2015 New York Times interview in which he said that the death penalty was a deterrent because when somebody is executed "you know that person's not going to kill again".

In the 1980s and 90s, opposition to the death penalty was "political poison in most elections", said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "Now, you are seeing Republican legislators, many of them conservative Republicans, openly oppose the death penalty."

Still, most of the decline in death penalty support comes from Democrats, according to a 2015 study by Pew Research Center. Nearly 60% of Democrats oppose the death penalty, compared to just 25% in 1996.

Which may be part of the problem for Clinton, who was roundly criticized for her awkward responses to questions about the death penalty during the primary season.

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton
Both of her primary rivals - Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley - opposed capital punishment. Now that the general election is under way, a Clinton challenge will be getting Sanders' fervent and progressive supporters to the polls.

At a CNN/TV One town hall meeting in Ohio in March, an undecided voter named Ricky Jackson stood up to ask the former secretary of state a question. Jackson had spent 39 years in prison for murder before being exonerated and freed in 2014.

"Senator, I spent some of those years on death row, and," Jackson began. He paused. Wiped tears from his eyes. "Excuse me, I'm sorry. I came perilously close to my own execution ... I would like to know how can you still take your stance on the death penalty in light of what we know right now."

"You know, this is such a profoundly difficult question," Clinton began cautiously.

"And what I have said and what I continue to believe is that the states have proven themselves incapable of carrying out fair trials that give any defendant all of the rights a defendant should have, all of the support that the defendant's lawyer should have."

Then she stepped into deep trouble, with a response critics roundly decried as typical triangulation, a kind of squishy have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too caution.

"I have said I would breathe a sigh of relief if either the supreme court or the states, themselves, began to eliminate the death penalty," she said.

"At this point, given the challenges we face from terrorist activities primarily in our country that end up under federal jurisdiction for very limited purposes," she continued, "I think that it can still be held in reserve for those."

Maybe, she said, "it is distinction that is hard to support."

Source: The Guardian, Nicky Woolf and Maria L La Ganga, August 17, 2016

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