The administration’s move to start executing prisoners on federal death row after a 16-year hiatus reverses a trend away from capital punishment in the US and tees up yet another divide between President Donald Trump and Democrats, who are nearly united in opposition.
Trump has been a public advocate of the death penalty for decades. And his embrace of the rhetoric of criminal justice reformers hasn’t softened his view on putting prisoners to death.
He took out a full-page ad in The New York Times calling for the state to reinstate its death penalty when five black and Latino teenagers were charged with raping a woman in Central Park in the 1990s. The teens were later exonerated in that crime and received settlements from the city. A recent Netflix documentary has brought the case back into the spotlight and drawn criticism of the prosecutor who oversaw the case.
But Trump has expressed no remorse for taking out the ads, which didn’t specifically mention the so-called Central Park 5.
“You have people on both sides of that,” he said in June.
He’s endorsed imposing the death penalty for some drug dealers, although the Supreme Court has ruled against capital punishment for federal offenders who did not commit murder. He’s pushed China to impose the death penalty for crimes involving fentanyl and praised the Philippines strongman Rodrigo Duterte for his drug war, which has included extrajudicial killings and vigilante justice. A number of other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iran and China, use capital punishment for drug offenses, according to Harm Reduction International, a nongovernmental organization specializing in drug policy.
Trump publicly called for the death penalty against Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect in a deadly 2017 attack on a New York bike path that killed eight people. The day after the crime, Trump said Saipov should be executed, long before a trial. Federal prosecutors rejected Saipov’s offer to plead guilty in exchange for not being put to death.
The US federal government has not executed a prisoner since 2003, and most prosecutions and convictions for murder occur in state courts. There are currently 62 prisoners on federal death row, compared with more than 2,600 on death row in states, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. More than half of the federal death row inmates are black or Latino.
President Barack Obama did not move to end the federal death penalty, but he signed no death warrants and he commuted the federal death sentences of two individuals to life without parole.
California recently joined multiple states in placing a moratorium on the death penalty and new Gov. Gavin Newsom had the death chamber at San Quentin dismantled. Half the states have some kind of death penalty, 21 do not and four have governor-induced moratoriums, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
The Trump administration’s move could put the death penalty back into the political conversation.
Multiple candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, including Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, condemned the administration’s move Thursday.
In fact, when The New York Times asked every Democratic candidate if they supported or opposed the death penalty, every one except Steve Bullock, the Montana governor, said they opposed it. Bullock supports it in limited circumstances.
One glaring omission in that project is former Vice President Joe Biden, who declined to be interviewed.
Biden, who has a long record of supporting capital punishment as a senator, seemed recently to suggest he no longer holds that view. Politico noted that Biden recently congratulated New Hampshire for repealing its death penalty this year. His criminal justice plan calls for ending the federal death penalty and encouraging states to follow suit.
It’s a far cry from 2000, when The New York Times noted that every candidate for president supported capital punishment. Or 1992, when then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton approved the death warrant of Ricky Ray Rector, who had brain damage. That type of execution would not be possible today, after subsequent Supreme Court decisions.
John Paul Stevens, the Republican-appointed former Supreme Court justice who died earlier this month, had helped bring the death penalty back to the country by joining a decision in 1976 after a four-year court-imposed hiatus. But he veered left during his career on the bench and wrote the opinion curbing capital punishment for people with mental impairments. By 2008 he was opposed to all forms of capital punishment.
The country has been moving in the same direction, but not quite as fast. Support for capital punishment was over 60% in the early 2000s in Gallup polling. More recently it has fallen to around 50%.
After Trump’s comments in March 2018 endorsing the death penalty for drug pushers, Quinnipiac asked about the death penalty in a poll and found 58% of Americans support the death penalty for people convicted of murder but another majority, 51%, said they would prefer a sentence of life without parole.
In that same poll, just 21% said they supported the death penalty for people who sold drugs that contributed to a fatal overdose. A similar 20% said they thought capital punishment for such people would help stop the opioid crisis.
There is a large partisan divide on the death penalty, with strong support among Republicans and Democrats preferring the penalty of life without parole in that poll.
It’s not clear if the Trump administration’s plan to execute five federal death row inmates will suddenly make the death penalty a key election issue, but it hasn’t really been part of the national political conversation since 2004, when John Kerry, then on his way to becoming the Democratic presidential nominee, opposed it for everyone but terrorists.