By: Liliana Segura
After the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Kennedy v. Louisiana this summer, striking down death sentences for child rape, but by the frighteningly narrow margin of 5 to 4, death penalty opponents were dismayed to see presidential candidate Barack Obama denounce the ruling.
“I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for the most egregious of crimes,” Obama told reporters in Chicago. “I think that the rape of a small child, 6 or 8 years old, is a heinous crime, and if a state makes a decision that under narrow, limited, well-defined circumstances the death penalty is at least potentially applicable, then that does not violate our Constitution.”
Two weeks after applauding the Court’s decision to grant habeas corpus rights to prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Obama’s dismissal of the 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment placed him to the right of many death penalty supporters–and squarely in the camp of the most reactionary conservatives on the bench.
Obama has never claimed to oppose the death penalty. Indeed, he often boasts about his past accomplishments seeking death penalty “reform” in Illinois. But regardless of how deeply held his desire to expand state-sanctioned murder, as with every public statement during an election campaign, Obama’s comments represented a crude political calculation. It allowed him to look “tough,” without having to take action.
Obama’s harsh new stance follows a long tradition in the Democratic Party of taking morally and intellectually dishonest positions on the death penalty to score political points.
Critics of public executions used to talk about their “brutalizing effect” on the populace, meaning that people would become inured to violence and more tolerant of state-sanctioned killing. Years of supporting the death penalty has had a similarly corrosive effect on the more “liberal” party, leading to what NCADP’s David Elliot described last year as “demagoguery among Democrats.”
The Democrats’ evolution on the death penalty is a narrative we’ve heard before. For years, opposition to executions was a platform issue for the party, but in 1988, Michael Dukakis was asked during a televised presidential debate whether he would support executing someone who raped and murdered his wife. “No,” he answered, “I don’t, and I think you know that I’ve, I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.”
This forthright response prompted merciless attacks; in the analysis of one pundit, the debate had “only reinforced his image as a liberal.”
Following Dukakis’s defeat–which followed years of losing presidential races to death penalty supporters–the Democrats embraced the death penalty in subsequent elections, a move that was disturbingly personified by Bill Clinton, when he took time during the 1992 campaign to fly to Arkansas to watch the murder of the brain-damaged prisoner Ricky Ray Rector.
Once elected, Clinton signed two of the most devastating pieces of legislation in modern U.S. history: The 1994 Omnibus Crime Law and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.
But the modern history of the death penalty shows it was a bipartisan project long before Clinton took office. Another major Democratic politician who had a formative–but overlooked–role is former president and former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter.
In 1972, when the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in Furman v. Georgia, Georgia legislators rewrote their death penalty statute, including new sentencing provisions for it to pass Constitutional muster.
Georgia was not alone; on March 11, 1973, in an article titled “States Moving on Capital Punishment,” the New York Times reported that “legislators in more than half the states are considering a reinstitution of the death penalty.” Among them were California under Gov. Ronald Reagan and New York, where Gov. Nelson Rockefeller–a “liberal Republican” whose legacy includes the notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws and the deadly crackdown on the Attica prison uprising in 1971–was quoted as saying he was giving “very serious consideration” to assigning death sentences for drug crimes.
But Democratic politicians took similar stances–and they appeared to be rewarded for it. According to the Times, “In Nevada, when Gov. Mike O’Callaghan made his hour-long State of the State message…he was interrupted by applause just once: When he called for the death penalty for the killing of police officers or the killing of prison staff members by inmates.”
Although the states were following the footsteps of Florida, the first state to pass a post-Furman death penalty law, (signed by Democratic Gov. Reuben Askew), it was Georgia’s law that would be inscribed in the Supreme Court decision that ultimately brought back the death penalty. Despite voicing reservations about its constitutionality, Gov. Jimmy Carter signed it into law on March 28, 1973. In 1976, the new law was upheld in Gregg v. Georgia, and a new era of death sentences had arrived.
Why did Carter, who is now one of the world’s most vocal death penalty opponents, sign the historic piece of deadly legislation? It’s hard to say. But chances are it had to do with his decision to run for president, which he announced in the fall of 1974. With well over half of the country’s legislative bodies galvanized to bring executions back to their states, Carter, it would seem, took a pragmatic position–the same pragmatic position so many defenders of the Democrats have justified year after year, in matters of life or death.
The first execution after Gregg took place in Utah in 1977, under newly inaugurated Governor Scott Matheson, a Democrat. Executions increased steadily in the 1980s and ’90s, along with public support for the death penalty. According to research published by Gallup, public support for the death penalty surpassed 70 percent in 1985 and peaked to a high of 80 percent in 1994.
That was the year Clinton signed the Omnibus Crime Law, a sweeping piece of legislation that, vastly expanded the death penalty “for drug kingpins, murderers of federal law enforcement officers, and nearly 60 additional categories of violent felons,” as Clinton boasted during his reelection campaign.
But this law, too, had a precursor that is often overlooked. In July of 1990, under the first President Bush, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed a version of the crime bill that was brought forth by none other than Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, who bragged that it was “the toughest, most comprehensive crime bill in our history.” The legislation dramatically expanded the number of federal crimes punishable by death, from 23 to 34. It passed the Senate by a landslide vote of 94 to 6.
Biden, of course, is now Obama’s presidential running mate, which means the Democrats have yet another solidly pro-death penalty ticket. So much for change.