Obama Pondering Death Penalty Role 11/27 06:39
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Even as President Barack Obama tries to make a hard case
for overhauling sentences, rehabilitating prisoners and confronting racial bias
in policing, he has been less clear about the death penalty.
Obama has hinted that his support for capital punishment is eroding, but he
has refused to discuss what he might call for.
A Justice Department review has dragged on for 18 months with little mention
or momentum. The president recently repeated he is "deeply concerned" about the
death penalty's implementation, though he also acknowledges the issue has not
been a top priority.
"I have not traditionally been opposed to the death penalty in theory, but
in practice it's deeply troubling," Obama told the Marshall Project, a
nonprofit journalism group, citing racial bias, wrongful convictions and
questions about "gruesome and clumsy" executions. His delay in proposing
solutions, he said, was because "I got a whole lot of other things to do as
Obama said he plans to weigh in, and considers the issue part of his larger,
legacy-minded push for an overhaul of the criminal justice system. White House
officials say the president is looking for an appropriate response and wading
through the legal ramifications.
Capital prosecutions are down across the United States. A shortage of lethal
injection drugs has meant de facto freezes in several states and at the federal
level. Spurred in part by encouragement from Supreme Court justices Stephen
Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, advocates are debating whether the time is
right to push the court to take a fresh look at whether the death penalty is
A solid majority --- 61 percent --- of the public supports the death penalty
in murder cases, but that share has crept downward while opposition has inched
up, according to a Gallup poll last month.
Obama isn't alone in struggling with the issue.
"We have a lot of evidence now that the death penalty has been too
frequently applied and, very unfortunately, often times in a discriminatory
way," Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton said. "So I
think we have to take a hard look at it." She also said she does "not favor
abolishing" it in all cases.
For Clinton's Democratic presidential rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders,
the issue is settled. "I just don't think the state itself, whether it's the
state government or federal government, should be in the business of killing
people," he said.
On the Republican side, candidate Jeb Bush says he's swayed by his Catholic
faith and is "conflicted."
"We should reform it," he told NBC's "Meet the Press." ''If it's to be used
as a deterrent, it has to be reformed. It can't take 25 years. That does no one
any good. Neither the victims nor the state is solving this problem with that
kind of tangled judicial process."
In September, Pope Francis stood before Congress and urged that the death
penalty be abolished. Obama specifically noted the comment when talking about
the speech to aides. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama was
"influenced" by what the pope said.
Such hints have death penalty opponents likening Obama's deliberations to
his gradual shift toward supporting gay marriage.
Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor who taught the president, said:
"Though not definitive, the idea that the president's views are evolving gives
me hope that he --- like an increasing number of prosecutors, jurors, judges,
governors and state legislators --- recognizes that the death penalty in
America is too broken to fix."
White House officials caution that any presidential statement disputing the
effectiveness or constitutionality of the death penalty would have legal
For example, would the administration then commute the sentences of the 62
people currently on federal death row to life in prison?
Every lawyer representing a death row inmate would make that case in an
appeal, said Douglas Berman, criminal law professor at Ohio State University's
Moritz College of Law. Among those inmates: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, convicted of
murder in the Boston Marathon bombing.
"There's not been a president who in the modern use of the federal death
penalty has indicated a disaffinity for it," Berman said. "And if this one were
to say, 'I don't think it's something we ought to be doing,' that's a policy
statement and personal statement, but it is also one that indisputably would be
put in the legal papers and would require courts to grapple with its
If Obama went further, perhaps formalizing the federal freeze, it could
affect other major terrorism cases. The Justice Department has yet to decide
whether to seek the death penalty in the prosecution of the man charged in the
attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, for example.
A moratorium might serve as a model for the states --- where most capital
prosecutions occur --- and would make more of a mark than expressions of
concern, advocates argue.
"On an issue like this, it's important to make judgments on what people
actually do," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty
Information Center, which opposes the death penalty. "We have seen in many
states governors who say they are against the death penalty, nonetheless
denying clemency in controversial cases. ... Whether people say they're
personally supportive of the death penalty or not doesn't really matter. It's
what they do that matters."