Americans Turn Away from the Death Penalty

Kamala Harris has always opposed capital punishment. As district attorney of San Francisco, she refused to seek the death penalty for an accused cop-killer, infuriating the police union and putting her at odds with California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. In her 2010 race for attorney general, Harris barely beat a Republican foe despite California’s strong Democratic tilt.

Her presidential campaign ended in disappointment on Tuesday, but here’s the notable thing: Her position on capital punishment had nothing to do with Harris’ failure to launch. What was once a controversial position has become perfectly normal in the Democratic Party.

Only one of the many current and past contenders in this year’s race, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, expressed support for capital punishment. The others appear to be united in favoring abolition. Even former Republican Michael Bloomberg agrees.

This consensus represents a decisive shift. In 2016, the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton said, “There are some really heinous crimes that are, in my view, still arguably ones that should potentially have the death penalty.”

Barack Obama was another supporter. In 2008, he even criticized a Supreme Court decision forbidding execution for criminals who rape children. “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 under narrow, limited, well-defined circumstance, the death penalty is at least potentially applicable, that that does not violate our Constitution,” he said. In 2015, Obama said he found the death penalty “deeply troubling” but was not ready to abandon it.

Democrats used to regard support for capital punishment as a political necessity, if not a moral imperative. During his 1992 primary campaign, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton allowed the execution of an inmate whose mental capacity was so limited that he asked guards to save the pie from his last meal “for later.” Clinton wanted to leave no doubt about his toughness on crime.

He chose a running mate, Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, who also supported execution of some criminals. Gore held to that position in his 2000 presidential campaign.
They took a stern lesson from the 1988 nominee, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who rejected the death penalty – even when asked during a debate if he would favor it if his wife were raped and murdered. His detached, clinical response to that question was seen as a fatal blunder.

At the time, capital punishment looked as secure as Alcatraz. But policy and public opinion have changed radically since then. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have abandoned it, and four more are under execution moratoriums declared by their governors.

The exoneration of more than 150 people who had been sentenced to death made it much harder to justify.

Prosecutors and juries are less enamored of it than ever. In 1999, 98 criminals were put to death in the United States. In 2018, the number was down to 25. In 2000, under a governor named George W. Bush, Texas alone carried out 40 executions. Last year, it had just 13.

The Supreme Court has curtailed the practice. In 2002, it prohibited the killing of those with “mental retardation.” In 2005, it forbade capital punishment for anyone who was under age 18 at the time of the crime.

More important, the American people have lost their ardor for government-imposed death. Gallup reported that this year, for the first time, a majority of Americans said they favor life imprisonment with no chance of parole over execution in murder cases. Fully 60% agree, with only 36% disagreeing. Two decades ago, the numbers were roughly reversed.

Democrats have welcomed the change. The 2016 platform was the first time the party came out for ending capital punishment. In the brief time since Hillary Clinton was crowned, it’s become almost impossible to imagine Democrats nominating a proponent of the death penalty.

It’s even harder to picture a GOP nominee opposing it. A 2018 Pew Research survey found that only 35% of Democrats favor putting killers to death — compared with 77% of Republicans. In July, Attorney General Bill Barr said the federal government would resume executions for the first time since 2003.

He’s fighting public sentiment with this gratuitous exercise in vengeance. In many ways, America seems to be getting more cruel, not less. But our growing disenchantment with human execution suggests that we are still capable of progress.

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune. His twice-a-week column on national and international affairs, distributed by Creators Syndicate, appears in some 50 papers across the country.