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Inter Press Service

Abolitionists Hope for Swing to Democrats in States

Mark Weisenmiller

TAMPA, Florida - The two U.S. presidential candidates have both expressed support for the death penalty, but abolitionist activists are hoping that pragmatism and a swing to the Democrats in the state elections in November will inevitably edge the country along the road to total abolition whoever wins the presidency.

John McCain and Barack Obama have told voters they want the death penalty for convicted child murderers and rapists. They have also called for the death penalty for Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S.

'Barack Obama's position is clear. By any means, bin Laden has committed heinous crimes that deserve the death penalty,' Moira Mack, of the Obama presidential campaign staff, told IPS.

McCain has also said that he wanted the death penalty for bin Laden, if tried and found guilty in a court of law.

Anti-death penalty activists note McCain's more outspoken support of the punishment goes back many years. McCain has frequently called for more executions at a federal level.

The last federal execution was in 2003, bringing to three the number since the late 1960s.

Most crimes in the U.S. are prosecuted at a state rather than federal level. But there are now 51 people on the federal death row in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Rights activists have called for a moratorium on federal executions, citing racism. A Justice Department study in 2000 found that in 80 percent of cases where prosecutors sought the death penalty, the defendant was a member of an ethnic minority.

But although McCain's support of the death penalty at federal level was a 'long-standing policy', he would not impose federal standards on the death penalty states, Taylor Griffin, McCain's spokesman, told IPS.

'Each state must decide whether they want it. Ultimately, this is an administrative issue, rather than an issue for the campaign,' Griffin said.

In January 2000, McCain called for the death penalty to be generally used more frequently. Six years before, he voted in favour of a successful motion that prevented death row inmates anywhere from using sentencing statistics to argue that they had been racially discriminated against. African Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, but 43 percent of the 3,200 on death row.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the rights group Death Penalty Information Centre, said he did not believe that the opinions of the two candidates on the death penalty would play a role in the presidential elections.

'Americans vote on larger issues -- the economy, foreign policy, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,' he said.

However, he added, 'I think the public is moving significantly away from the death penalty, and that is going to happen no matter who is elected president.'

Obama was likely to be more sympathetic to those pressing for abolition, he suggested.

'Obama sees that there are problems with the death penalty. When he was a local politician in Illinois, he saw that there were problems with such things as police interrogations and tried to address these problems,' Dieter said.

Diana Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP), told IPS that whoever won the presidency would take a pragmatic stand on the death penalty.

'We do not put policy-makers in boxes or categories, especially presidential candidates. We think there is too great a risk of error if you do that. People's perceptions of the death penalty change over time,' she said. 'The question is not whether or not we are going to continue dragging along this non-working policy, but whether we are going to re-evaluate this.'

People all over the U.S. were starting 'to concentrate on answering the question: 'Is this in our best interest?''

'I am optimistic that we are going to continue to see changes in America regarding death penalty policies,' she said, adding that these would be carried through at a state level.

Dieter agreed that the future of the death penalty would be decided by politicians in each of the remaining 36 states out of 50 which allow the practice.

'State legislatures have more direct effect on the death penalty than the president of the U.S.,' he said.

He agreed that a large liberal Democratic Party win in the state legislatures in November might eventually result in abolition bills.

'That is a possibility. Then we would start to see some real changes,' Dieter said. 'But since it often takes months or even years for such legislation to pass, it would still be a long time before we would see such states abolishing the death penalty.'

According to the DPIC, there were 42 executions in the U.S. in 2007, all of them in southern states. Twenty-six of these executions were in Texas.

Since the lifting of a seven-month unofficial moratorium in April while the Supreme Court ruled on challenges to lethal injections, there have been 20 executions.


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