|Hillary Rodham Clinton|
Less than a month before the New Hampshire primary in 1992, Bill Clinton left the campaign trail and tended to a pressing matter.
Rickey Ray Rector, a convicted killer, was scheduled to be executed in Arkansas. Mr. Clinton, then the governor, returned to Little Rock and was present in the state when Mr. Rector was put to death, a detour that demonstrated his toughness on crime. Democrats "should no longer feel guilty about protecting the innocent," Mr. Clinton had said at a debate a few days earlier, emphasizing, in general, the need to punish criminals.
Nearly a quarter-century later, Mr. Clinton's wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has taken a strikingly different tone. While stopping short of calling for the death penalty's abolition, she urged a "hard look" at its use, saying it had been applied too frequently, and often in a discriminatory manner. Last week, she said she would "breathe a sigh of relief' if the Supreme Court struck it down.
Mrs. Clinton is one of several presidential candidates from both parties who are voicing skepticism about capital punishment, seizing on a growing national ambivalence. The issue has been a source of political pressure, but in a changed way: While Mr. Clinton leaned rightward, playing up his commitment to law and order, Mrs. Clinton is now contending with an expectant left, as well as passionate calls from her 2 Democratic rivals for the death penalty to be repealed outright.
Presidential Candidates on the Death Penalty
Most candidates support the existence of the death penalty, but many have acknowledged problems or reservations with the current system.
"From Bill to Hillary is a remarkable signal of the changed climate surrounding capital punishment," said Austin D. Sarat, a professor of law and political science at Amherst College who has long studied the death penalty.
But memories of an earlier political era, when crime was high and Democrats found themselves on the losing side of the issue, remain strong. So do memories of the fate of the party's 1988 nominee, Michael S. Dukakis, a death penalty opponent, whose campaign was damaged by his clinical response in a debate when he was asked if he would favor the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered. He said he would not.
Although public support for the death penalty has waned, 56 % of Americans still support it for people convicted of murder, according to a poll in March by the Pew Research Center.
"Have minds been changed somewhat on the death penalty?" Mr. Dukakis, who supports Mrs. Clinton's candidacy, said in an interview this week. "Yeah, I think so. But I don't think coming out against the death penalty will win you points in this election. And it will certainly provoke plenty of criticism from the other side."
Mrs. Clinton, for all her reservations, has been willing to move only so far.
"Politicians were more comfortable saying 'civil unions' before they were comfortable saying 'gay marriage,'" Mr. Sarat said. "I think that's what you see in the Hillary Clinton kind of approach."
The scrutiny of the death penalty is part of a broader look at the wisdom of the country's criminal justice policies, a discussion motivated in part by concerns over how racial minorities are treated. The parties have found common ground in the need for criminal justice changes, with Democrats and Republicans alike speaking of their desire to reduce the country's prison population.
|Presidential Hopeful Bernie Sanders|
The use of the death penalty has changed significantly since Mr. Clinton was weighing the fate of Mr. Rector, who had killed two people, including a police officer, and then shot himself, destroying part of his brain. Jeff Rosenzweig, a lawyer for Mr. Rector, contended that he was "in the vernacular, a zombie," too impaired to grasp the punishment he was about to receive, and that "his execution would be remembered as a disgrace to the state."
Mr. Rector, who saved a helping of pecan pie from his last meal so he could eat it later, was put to death by lethal injection, and the next day, Mr. Clinton said he respected death penalty opponents' right to their opinions. "All I ask is that you respect mine," he added, "for I have spent most of my public life worrying about what it would take to give our children a safe place to live again."
Last year, only 7 states conducted executions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, and the number of people executed, 35, was the lowest in 20 years.
In his address to Congress in September, Pope Francis argued for the death penalty's abolition, saying, "Every life is sacred." And last month, the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents more than 45,000 churches and had for decades stood in support of capital punishment, adopted a resolution affirming that "evangelical Christians differ in their beliefs about capital punishment."
Proponents of abolishing the death penalty said they believed candidates were freer to express reservations now than in past election cycles. For one thing, they have several pragmatic reasons to cite, including how minorities are treated; the high costs of litigation surrounding death penalty cases; and the large number of death row exonerations, including from DNA evidence.
"It's not a litmus test in the same way that it used to be," said Cassandra Stubbs, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Capital Punishment Project.
Although the death penalty is an enduring topic for presidential campaigns, the president's actual power to end capital punishment is limited, because a vast majority of executions are carried out at the state level. Only 3 people have been executed by the federal government in the last half-century; the most recent, in 2003, was Louis Jones Jr., who had kidnapped, raped and killed a female soldier. The president could indirectly influence the future of the death penalty, though, through Supreme Court appointments.
But in the Democratic primary, Mrs. Clinton's rivals have been eager to use the issue as another way to draw a distinction with her, especially among left-leaning voters who may already have doubts about the depth and purity of Mrs. Clinton's liberalism.
Only 40 % of Democrats support the death penalty, according to the Pew survey, and among Democrats who described their political views as liberal, only 29 % were in support of it.
Asked about the death penalty last month while campaigning in New Hampshire, Mrs. Clinton said the country needed to be "smarter and more careful" about how it was applied.
"I think there are certain egregious cases that still deserve the consideration of the death penalty, but I'd like to see those be very limited and rare, as opposed to what we have seen in some states," she said.
The day after Mrs. Clinton's comments, her main opponent for the Democratic nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, drew an implicit contrast by taking to the Senate floor to reaffirm his opposition to the death penalty. He said that the government "should itself not be involved in the murder of other Americans."
The 3rd Democratic candidate, former Gov. Martin O'Malley of Maryland, went directly after Mrs. Clinton on the issue. As governor, Mr. O'Malley successfully pushed for the repeal of the death penalty in Maryland, and before he left office, he commuted the sentences of 4 men who had remained on death row because the repeal was not retroactive.
In an interview on CNN, Mr. O'Malley said that Mrs. Clinton was "often a bit behind the times" about "what works in terms of public policy."
The Republican field has been generally supportive of the death penalty, but not without some reservations.
In a recent interview on NBC News's "Meet the Press," former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida described himself as "conflicted" and said the death penalty was "not a deterrent anymore because it's seldom used." A Roman Catholic, he invoked his faith, saying, "It's hard for me as a human being to sign the death warrant, to be honest with you." But he acknowledged that it could provide "closure" for victims' loved ones.
During Mr. Bush's time as governor, Florida executed 21 people. His emails show him grappling with the subject, calling it, at one point, "an issue that tears at my heart."
But other Republican candidates still take a firm stance in favor of the death penalty.
After a woman was beaten and raped while jogging in Central Park in 1989, Donald J. Trump paid for full-page newspaper advertisements that declared in large capital letters: "Bring Back the Death Penalty." (It was reinstated in New York in 1995 - fulfilling a campaign promise by Gov. George E. Pataki, another presidential candidate - but the state's highest court effectively struck it down before anyone was executed.)
In an interview this summer, Mr. Trump argued that the death penalty deterred crime. When someone is executed, he pointed out, "you know that person's not going to kill again."
Source: New York Times, November 14, 2015