Where Do the Presidential Candidates Stand on the Death Penalty?

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Steve Sands/Getty Images

Unlike past presidential elections, national interest in the candidates' positions on the death penalty has waned, partly due to a decline in the number of states that no longer allow capital punishment. Furthermore, the rate of violent crimes in the United States has steadily decreased for 20 years, that is, until 2015 when, according to the FBI, the incidences of violent crime rose to 1.7 percent which included a 6 percent increase in homicides.

History has shown that when the crime numbers are up, more people are pro-death penalty and interest in the position political candidates take on the issue becomes more important to voters.

Lessons Learned?

A good example of rising crime statistics determining voter interest in the death penalty was the 1988 presidential election between Michael Dukakis and George H. W. Bush.  The national murder rate was averaging around 8.4 percent and 76 percent of Americans were for the death penalty, the second highest number since recording began in 1936.

Dukakis was portrayed as being too liberal and soft on crime. He received a fair amount of criticism because he was opposed to the death penalty.

An incident that many believe sealed his fate as losing the election occurred during an October 13, 1988, debate between Dukakis and Bush. When the moderator, Bernard Shaw, asked Dukakis if he would be in favor of the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered, Dukakis replied that he would not favor it and reiterated that he was opposed to the death penalty all of his life.

The general consensus was that his answer was cold and his national poll numbers plummeted the very night of the debate.

Despite the fact that the majority in the U.S. is still in favor of the death penalty, opposition to state executions is rising: at 38 percent opposing the ultimate penalty for a crime, this is the highest level of opposition to capital punishment.

Where do today's presidential candidates stand on the death penalty in the face of rising opposition against it?

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. It was the largest crime bill in U.S. history. Along with adding major funding for 100,000 new police officers, it also banned the manufacture of many semi-automatic firearms and expanded the federal death penalty.  It has been said in retrospect, that the bill was also responsible for the large increase in African American and Hispanic incarceration.

As first lady, Hillary Clinton was a strong advocate of the bill and lobbied for it in Congress. She has since spoken out against part of it, saying that it is time to revisit it.

While in the House, Bernie Sanders also voted in favor of the bill, but he originally supported a revised bill that abolished the federal death penalty in exchange for life sentences. When the revised bill was rejected, Sanders voted for the final bill that included the expansion of the federal death penalty. Spokespersons for Sanders have said that his support was due largely to the Violence Against Women Act and assault weapons ban.

 

Hillary Clinton Supports the Death Penalty (but Struggles With It)

Hillary Clinton has taken a more cautious stand than Sanders. During the same February MSNBC debate, Clinton said that she was concerned about how the death penalty is handled on a state level and that she has a lot more confidence in the federal system.

“For very limited, particularly heinous crimes, I believe it is an appropriate punishment, but I deeply disagree with the way that too many states are still implementing it,” Clinton said.

Clinton was also confronted with questions about her views on the death penalty during a CNN-hosted Democratic town hall on March 14, 2016.

Ricky Jackson, an Ohio man who spent 39 years in prison and came “perilously close” to being executed, and who was later found to be innocent, was emotional when he asked Clinton, "In light of what I've just shared with you and in light of the fact that there are undocumented cases of innocent people who have been executed in our country.

I would like to know how you can still take your stance on the death penalty."

Clinton again voiced her concerns, saying, "The states have proven themselves incapable of carrying out fair trials that give any defendant all the rights that defendants should have..."

She also said she would "breathe a sigh of relief" if State Supreme Courts eliminated the death penalty. She then added that she still supported it "in rare cases" on a federal level for terrorist and mass murderers.

“If it were possible to separate the federal from the state system by the Supreme Court,” Clinton added, confusingly, “that would, I think, be an appropriate outcome,” a statement some critics referred to as back peddling. 

Donald Trump Supports the Death Penalty (and Would Likely Inject the Needle)   

On December 10, 2015, Donald Trump announced to several hundred police union members in Milford, New Hampshire, that one of the first things he would do as president would be to sign a statement that anybody that kills a police office would get the death penalty. He made the announcement after he accepted the endorsement of the New England Police Benevolent Association.

"One of the first things I would do, in terms of making an executive order if I win, would be to sign a strong, strong statement that will go out to the country—out to the world—that anybody killing a policeman, policewoman, a police officer—anybody killing a police officer, the death penalty. It's going to happen, OK? We can’t let this go."

In 1989, Trump earned his pro-death penalty status after taking out a full-page ad in four New York City newspapers titled, "BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY!

BRING BACK THE POLICE!" It was assumed that his actions were in reference to the May 1989 brutal rape of a woman who was jogging in Central Park, although he never made reference to the attack.

Known as the case of the Central Park Five, the sentences of the five males convicted of the rape were later vacated after serial rapist and murderer, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime. The DNA evidence was reexamined and matched Reyes and it was the only semen found on the victim.

In 2014, the Central Park Five settled a civil case with the city for $41 million dollars. It has also been said that Trump was furious about it.