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The Capital Times (Madison, Wisconsin)

Most Candidates Wrong on Death Penalty

John Nichols

The death penalty is a ridiculously ineffective and even more ridiculously expensive tool for fighting crime. It is a permanent punishment, yet it is applied unevenly and unreliably. It is dramatically racist in its application. It is even more dramatically biased along class lines.

It is cruel, and it is unusual. It has been banned by the civilized world.

And, of course, there is the matter of it being immoral when weighed against any moral code that can see beyond the "eye for an eye" fantasy that Mahatma Gandhi correctly observed "leaves the whole world blind."

Yet, for the most part, the candidates for the 2008 Democratic and Republican presidential nominations are death penalty supporters -- or, perhaps even more objectionably, they are death penalty apologists.

One candidate, Mike Huckabee, is a death penalty practitioner. Huckabee notes that, as governor of Arkansas, he had to "carry out the death penalty more than any governor in the history of my state." This is, Huckabee claims, "not something I'm proud of."

Yet Huckabee's embarrassment was not so great as to cause him to follow the lead of a fellow Republican, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, by calling a halt to executions.

Huckabee's hypocrisy is writ large across his every action, so it is not surprising that the self-defined "Christian leader" continues the ancient Roman custom of state-sanctioned slaying of prisoners.

But Huckabee's no worse than proponents of expanding the death penalty. Republican Mitt Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, drafted legislation to reinstate the death penalty. Democrat Joe Biden, the senator from Delaware, authored the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which expanded the federal death penalty to cover 60 new offenses.

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is a death penalty advocate who, as first lady, lobbied for expanding the list of federal crimes for which a prisoner could be killed.

Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani is another longtime fan of capital punishment, and he has even gone so far as to urge federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty in specific cases.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, Clinton's closest competitor for the Democratic nod, is embarrassingly hypocritical on the issue. With death penalty abolitionists, he cites his work as an Illinois state senator to reform that state's capital punishment system. With death penalty supporters, he says allowing executions is a way of saying that "the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage."

John Edwards, who has made a strong play for progressive votes, also favors the death penalty. But Edwards at least says "we need reforms in the death penalty to ensure that defendants receive fair trials, with zealous and competent lawyers, and with full access to DNA testing."

That's similar to the stance taken by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. And it's a whole lot better than another Democrat, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, who opposes the sort of moratorium on capital punishment -- in order to ensure that innocents are not executed -- that even some Republicans back.

The leading Democratic contenders are no more responsible or humane when it comes to the death penalty than mainstream Republicans such as Fred Thompson, the senator-turned-actor who played a tough prosecutor on TV, or Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Indeed, of the 16 men and women actively seeking the nominations of the two parties this year, only three have sided with death penalty abolitionists. Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, a Democrat, has argued for 35 years in favor of ending capital punishment. Similarly, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, the libertarian Republican who is at odds with his party's leaders on so many fronts, is an across-the-board foe of executions whose campaign says he always has and always will vote against capital punishment.

Once again, that aligns Paul with Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, a steady and passionate foe of the death penalty, who says, "Morally, I simply do not believe that we as human beings have the right to 'play God' and take a human life -- especially since our human judgments are fallible and often wrong."

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. His new book is The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders' Cure for Royalism.

© 2008 Capital Newspapers

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