Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was asked by Ricky Jackson, a black man wrongfully convicted of murder who spent 39 years in prison, how she could support the death penalty, despite serious problems with it. Struggling to maintain his composure, he mentioned he was imprisoned on death row and came “perilously close” to execution.
The question came during a Democratic town hall at Ohio State University. Jackson credited the Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnati for his ultimate exoneration. Without their effort, he would not be alive today, he said.
Clinton’s answer was no different than previous answers. She invoked the “War on Terrorism” and the 9/11 attacks to justify continued support for the death penalty.
This position stands in stark contrast to her opponent, Bernie Sanders, who unequivocally opposes the death penalty and previously has said the government should not be in the “business of killing people.”
“It seems to me that at a time of rampant violence and murder all over the world, where people have blown up and their heads are being cut off, it is important that the state itself, that the federal government here in America say loud and clearly that we will not be part of that process,” Sanders declared in a Senate floor speech in October of last year.
Clinton argued, “At this point, given the challenges we face from terrorist activities primarily in our country that end up under federal jurisdiction for very limited purposes, I think that it can still be held in reserve for those.”
“And the kind of crimes that I am thinking of are the bombing at Oklahoma City, where an American terrorist blew up the government building, killing, as I recall, 158 Americans, including a number of children who were in the preschool program,” Clinton added. “The plotters and the people who carried out the attacks on 9/11, but a very limited use of it in cases where there has been horrific mass killings. That is really the exception that I still am struggling with, and that would only be in the federal system.”
The answer was very similar to her answer in October during a campaign stop in New Hampshire. She said, “We have a lot of evidence now that the death penalty has been too frequently applied, and too often in a discriminatory way. So I think we have to take a hard look at it.”
Clinton stated, “I do not favor abolishing it, however, because I do think there are certain egregious cases that still deserve the consideration of the death penalty, but I’d like to see those be very limited and rare, as opposed to what we’ve seen in most states.”
Before stating her position on the issue, Clinton said, “This is such a profoundly difficult question. And what I have said and what I continue to believe is that the states have proven themselves incapable of carrying out fair trials that give any defendant all of the rights a defendant should have, all of the support that the defendant’s lawyer should have.”
“I would breathe a sigh of relief if either the Supreme Court or the states, themselves, began to eliminate the death penalty,” Clinton declared.
Clinton has a habit of approaching questions as if she is somehow a neutral observer, who can offer an abstract opinion on what is right and wrong. The reality is this is another issue to which her record is inextricably linked, and she owed Ricky Jackson a much better answer, especially one which grappled with her past history more openly.
As the Marshall Project summarized, “In 1976, Hillary Rodham Clinton was the director of the legal aid clinic at the University of Arkansas, where she defended inmates, many of them black, on death row.” However, as her husband, Bill Clinton, moved to position himself as a centrist within the Democratic Party, she stood by while her husband, in his position as Arkansas governor, “oversaw the state’s first executions since 1964, including that of a mentally-disabled man who did not understand he was about to die.”
In 2000, when she ran for the Senate, she said that the death penalty had her “unenthusiastic support.” But now, as it is harder to support the death penalty, she opposes it except in cases involving individuals charged with federal terrorism offenses.
The shifts in her position directly match up with her campaigns for office. Instead of leading on the issue, she stakes out a position that will not affect her status within the Democratic Party and when asking voters to support her. It still leaves voters to wonder what her stance actually is on the death penalty.
Clinton helped her husband push and defend a crime bill, which expanded “the number of federal crimes to which the death penalty applied from two to fifty-eight (the bill also eliminated an existing statute that prohibited the execution of mentally incapacitated defendants).”
Her campaign has been relentless in their efforts to shield Clinton from scrutiny for supporting the crime bill by pointing out that Sanders voted for it.
In 1994, as a member of the House of Representatives, Sanders gave a floor speech against the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. He supported an amendment to the bill that would have replaced all federal death sentences with life in prison. But his campaign maintains he considered it so important to pass the “Violence Against Women Act” and a ban on “certain assault weapons” that he voted for the legislation.
When someone who was wrongfully convicted of murder and held on death row for 39 years asks about the death penalty, one would think there is a moral obligation for Clinton to grapple with personal history with the issue in order to have credibility when answering the question. One would think this would be especially true, since she was involved in directly influencing the expansion of crimes the federal government can sentence people to death for committing.
After Clinton gave a nearly identical answer at a debate in early February, Scott Martelle, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, pointed out that her answer misses the fact that death penalty exonerations often hinge on “prosecutorial or investigative misconduct” and “lying witnesses,” a systemic issue which Clinton overlooks. It also is not true that state court systems are much more susceptible to injustice than the federal court system.
Back to the issue of terrorism, Jennifer Stern, who was part of the National Security Council from 1994 to 1995 (when Bill Clinton was president), wrote in 2000, “When it comes to terrorism, national security concerns should be paramount.”
“The execution of terrorists, especially minor operatives, has effects that go beyond retribution or justice,” Stern argued. “The executions play right into the hands of our adversaries. We turn criminals into martyrs, invite retaliatory strikes, and enhance the public relations and fundraising strategies of our enemies.”
During his Senate floor speech last year, Sanders stated, “I think that those of us who want to set an example, who want to say that we’ve got to end the murders and the violence that we’re seeing in our country and all over the world should in fact be on the side of those of us who believe that we must end capital punishment in this country.”
Clinton’s opposition is an argument against taking away the government’s ability to carry out vengeance on individuals convicted of terrorism. Moreover, it diminishes efforts to advance more systemic criminal justice reforms. Ending the death penalty is one of the first places, where politicians should start to reform the justice system so it no longer disproportionately impacts on people of color.