Obama Touts His Death Penalty Reform Role

There's no question Barack Obama is to be credited for his role in enacting legislation in Illinois to require mandatory taping of interrogations to reduce wrongful convictions.

But, he is not a death penalty opponent.

Obama wrote in his recent memoir that he thinks the death penalty "does little to deter crime." But he supports capital punishment in cases "so heinous, so beyond the pale, that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment."

A Chicago Tribune profile of Obama last spring (May 2, 2007, available on Lexis.com) contained this paragraph:

A critic of the state's broken capital punishment system, Obama spent two years working with Republicans to broker a series of reforms aimed at making it more difficult for the innocent to face execution. Still, Obama found himself on various sides of the death penalty debate. Five months into office, he voted to expand the list of death-eligible crimes to include the brutal murder of a senior citizen or a disabled person. Four years later, he opposed adding murders that were part of "gang activity" to the list, saying the term was a "mechanism to target particular neighborhoods (and) particular individuals."(my emphasis)


There are many causes of wrongful convictions -- the leading one is mistaken eyewitness identifications. In short, there is no way to create a fool-proof death penalty system and guarantee no innocent person gets put on death row -- other than abolishing the death penalty entirely.

The problem with the death penalty is not just the risk of wrongful convictions. It's also the arbitrary way in which decisions are made to seek it and racial disparity in its application. As the Chicago Tribune noted in a March 25, 2007 editorial (link no longer working),

Who gets a sentence of life and who gets death is often a matter of random luck, of politics, of geography, even a matter of racism. Mistakes can occur at every level of the process.

Our death penalty system is broken and it's time we ended it.

I wish that's what Obama supported, but he doesn't. Nor, if my memory is right, has he taken a stand on the Kentucky case to be decided by the Supreme Court this year, on whether the the drug cocktails used in lethal injection constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

Obama isn't alone among the candidates in his support of the death penalty. But the others aren't disingenuously re-casting themselves as opponents.

In 2004, for the first time since the 1980's, the Dems, at the insistence of John Kerry, dropped the death penalty from their platform. Will Obama pledge to keep it out?

There's nothing more I would like to see from Obama than for him to come full circle on the death penalty and oppose it. But that doesn't seem to be his position and he shouldn't be cast as a death penalty opponent. He's not.

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    Incredible (5.00 / 1) (#10)
    by Al on Mon Nov 12, 2007 at 04:10:27 PM EST
    It is inconceivable that "expressing outrage" should be considered a valid reason for killing someone in the name of society.

    Good point (none / 0) (#13)
    by eric on Mon Nov 12, 2007 at 04:26:57 PM EST
    Good point.  But that is all these people can really cling to.  Killing doesn't deter, and prison would work just as well at keeping society safe.  Quenching society's blood-lust is about all you have left.

    I would add that maybe, in cases of extremely heinous crimes, we should torture the accused before we kill him.  Not that will express society's outrage!


    Not only that... (none / 0) (#23)
    by HK on Tue Nov 13, 2007 at 05:42:18 AM EST
    The death penalty is applied in a relatively small percentage of murder cases.  If we follow Obama's reasoning, then in the cases in which the death penalty is not sought, we telling the victim's loved ones that we are not sufficiently outraged by that person's death.  "Sorry, your loved one was not old enough/young enough/vulnerable enough or did not die in a brutal enough manner."  When will a politician stand up and speak the truth, namely that every murder is unacceptable and therefore singling out certain cases in which to impose the death penalty is in itself offensive?  Particularly when you figure in the fact that murderers who have something to barter with, for example, serial killers who hold the knowledge where victims' bodies have been left or those who are prepared to give evidence against other offenders, often use this to get the death penalty taken off the table.  So, what, it's okay to suspend or dismiss our outrage in these cases?  This victim hierarchy is a moral aspect to the death penalty that goes unnoticed.

    It is outrageous that someone might think that levels of punishment are there to reflect levels of societal outrage.


    What did Obama actually say? (5.00 / 1) (#11)
    by Anonymous Liberal on Mon Nov 12, 2007 at 04:14:48 PM EST

    You wrote:

    But the others aren't disingenuously re-casting themselves as opponents.

    What did Obama (or someone from his campaign) actually say that you think is disingenuous?  I didn't see anything in the article you linked to other than accurate claims about what Obama did in Illinois. I'm curious what you think Obama is saying that is inaccurate.  

    I agree with you completely regarding the death penalty, but this post seems pretty unfair to me absent a showing that Obama is somehow misrepresenting his record or his position. He actually has accomplished something very constructive on this issue, which is something his opponents can't say.  And if you look at his career, there is little doubt that he is more progressive on this issue than either Clinton or Edwards. So this is seems like an odd basis to criticise him.  

    Here's what I find disingenous (2.00 / 1) (#16)
    by Jeralyn on Mon Nov 12, 2007 at 05:11:26 PM EST
    The Illinois Death Penalty Reform Bill encompassed a great number of reforms. The final bill is No. 472. (pdf). Obama worked on one component of the reform, mandatory taping of interrogations of murder suspects. That bill was no. 223. It was included in the reform package but by no means the biggest part.

    In addition, true death penalty reform must encompass protecting the guilty from the law's arbitrary and racially disparate application as well as protecting the innocent. Obama uses his work for the innocent, limited to modifying procedural aspects of the death penalty with respect to mandatory taping of confessions, to cast himself as a total death penalty reformer.

    Even the reform bill in its entirety, No. 472,  failed to include many needed protections. (See here, pdf).

    Illinois still has a death penalty law and it's still lacking in many areas. Obama's work was to push for reforms for those might have been wrongfully charged or convicted because of false confessions.

    So I find his role overstated in many respects.
     From the linked AP article:

    Barack Obama can honestly claim to have made a difference on a matter of life and death.

    ...Obama was key in getting the state's notorious death penalty laws changed

    ...Obama often cites his role in Illinois death penalty debate as evidence that he can resolve thorny issues through compromise.

    ....For Obama, a student of constitutional law, it was an issue he relished to tackle -- and also one of keen importance to the black voters he would need if he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004.

    ...The idea that people might be executed for crimes they did not commit also enraged him

    The use of the word "also" implies there were other facets of the death penalty he opposed -- where the defendant is guilty but being targeted unfairly for the death penalty -- but I don't see anything he did that resulted in change there.

    Rob Warden, Executive Director of the Illinois Center of Wrongful Convictions, in his 40 page law review article on the history of the reform package, credits many people but never even mentions Obama's name.

    Again, Obama's work is to be credited. But he didn't single-handedly reform the death penalty system in Illinois and he is not a leader in working to end the unfairness of the death penalty in general or the unfairness of its racially imbalanced application.

    Puffery in my opinion is disingenuous.


    But.... (5.00 / 2) (#22)
    by Anonymous Liberal on Mon Nov 12, 2007 at 09:25:55 PM EST
    ...Jeralyn, the "puffery" you point to seems to be from the AP writer, not Obama. The only thing the writer attributes to Obama is the claim that this is an example of him working to achieve a compromise, which is certainly true. Moreover, even the stuff the AP writer says is totally defensible and pedestrian stuff.  Obama's efforts did make a difference on a matter of life and death, even if they didn't go as far as you would have liked.  

    Politicians--including Obama's opponents--routinely engage in puffery, and even if you attritube everything the AP writer says here to Obama personally, it's still not even a very noteworthy example of puffery. Moreover, though Obama doesn't go as far as you'd like on this issue, he seems to care more and have done more about it than any of his rivals.  So, again, it seems like a really odd issue to single him out for criticism.  

    I think if someone accused Hillary of "disingenuousness" based on this factual predicate, you'd think it was a pretty weak charge.


    I agree withAnon (none / 0) (#24)
    by Satya1 on Tue Nov 13, 2007 at 10:43:07 AM EST
    I also did not see inflated claims from Obama on this.  And then other major candidates have done little or nothing about protecting innocent people from being executed but we'll criticize Obama because he doesn't yet walk on water?

    I take some comfort that Obama is willing to make some progress on tough issues.  I hope his position will evolve.

    I wish the Dem party would come out more strongly about it but it seems to me the Repubs have succeeded so far as using it as an argument that Dems are "soft on crime".

    There are numerous good reasons to abolish the death penalty.  Another one is that we are only one of a handful of democracies that do it and it hurts our credibility in the world on human rights issues.


    Tuesday already? (none / 0) (#1)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Mon Nov 12, 2007 at 01:05:50 PM EST
    Fast day.

    Heh. I assume you want this one at the top for the rest of the day.

    nope, a mistake. (none / 0) (#2)
    by Jeralyn on Mon Nov 12, 2007 at 01:13:52 PM EST
    thanks, I'll fix it.

    But it is a terrific post (none / 0) (#4)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Mon Nov 12, 2007 at 01:20:53 PM EST
    Put it back on top.

    Mine is just more whining about Sully.


    I put it back on top (none / 0) (#5)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Mon Nov 12, 2007 at 01:26:00 PM EST
    Candidates on the Death penalty (none / 0) (#6)
    by Jeralyn on Mon Nov 12, 2007 at 01:43:06 PM EST
    Kerry personally supported the death penalty for international terrorists. But he still recognized the problems with it and wanted it out of the Democratic platform. He said he would support a moratorium on it.

    All of the Democratic candidates except Kucinich favor the death penalty in what they call "heinous cases."  On the Republican side, Ron Paul opposes the death penalty.

    Hillary was an early supporter of the Innocence Protection Act in 2003, but she too supports the death penalty. John Edwards supports it more than most. Interestingly, as a lawyer, he opposed it:

    As a trial lawyer, John Edwards opposed the death penalty. He says he changed his mind as his children grew up. He supports the death penalty for "the most heinous crimes."

    Here's where the Dems stood in 2003.

    Wes Clark was good on issue, recognizing the unfairness of its application:

    "A government like the United States has the right to, in extraordinary cases, take the life of a criminal, but I don't like the way the death penalty has been applied in America," Clark said. " I think its been applied in an unfair and discriminatory fashion and I think we need to go back and use modern technology and unpack all those cases on death row."

    The point I'm making is that it's not enough to critique the death penalty because an innocent might get executed. That's hugely important, but it's also important to recognize that the death penalty is wrong for the guilty because it's applied in an arbitrary and racially disparate manner.

    thanks (none / 0) (#7)
    by Jgarza on Mon Nov 12, 2007 at 03:18:17 PM EST
    good reading

    Gravel (none / 0) (#9)
    by Ben Masel on Mon Nov 12, 2007 at 03:59:38 PM EST
    about.com has
    Death Penalty - Abolitionist: Gravel has consistently supported abolition of the death penalty since at least 1972.

    but I'm not finding anything on Gravel's website.

    Gravel's Issues page has "For more detailed explanations of Senator's Gravel issues, please see the PDF booklet, 'Mike Gravel: Man for America.'" but there's nothing there.

    Pew Forum has

    Gravel has said little about capital punishment on the campaign trail, but he called for abolition of the death penalty in his 1972 book, Citizen Power. He still believes capital punishment should be outlawed, according to campaign press secretary Alex Colvin.

    Support for death is a presidential requirement (none / 0) (#8)
    by eric on Mon Nov 12, 2007 at 03:33:46 PM EST
    You cannot be elected president today and be anti-death penalty.  There are too many barbarians in this country.  It's sad, but it's true.

    BTW, my guess is that Edwards change of opinion on the issue doesn't have as much to do with his kids growing up as it does with his entry into politics.  He's not stupid...he knows you can't be anti-death penalty and have a chance.

    Look at the polls:  LINK

    That's a self-fulfilling Prophecy (none / 0) (#14)
    by SFHawkguy on Mon Nov 12, 2007 at 04:35:18 PM EST
    Public opinion will not change unless politicians are willing to fight for ideas that aren't popular. Anyway, I don't think you're right that being against the death penalty would is a political loser.

    The death penalty is one of many issues and people might actually give a candidate some credit if he/she takes a principled stand even if they disagree with the candidate on this one issue.  Plus, how many people rate this high up on their list of issue?

    Regardless of the political strategy, the idea that a candidate would change his/her stance on a life and death matter to get a few more votes is morally repugnant.  I, for one, will hold this against Hillary, Edwards, and Obama and will never forgive them. How can one support the wrongful killing of another human being because of the possibility of losing votes?  In what world is this good advice ("Mr. President to be, I know you are personally against the bayonetting of babies, but the neo-fascist vote is a big force these days, so I recommend we focus on tax cuts and waffle on the baby killing issue)?  

    These Democrats are such moral cowards that they can't even muster the courage to express their own belief that the state is wrongly killing people.  Got that?  They do not have the courage to ask our country to change a law that they claim wrongly kills people!!!!!!!


    interestingly enough, (none / 0) (#18)
    by cpinva on Mon Nov 12, 2007 at 06:49:42 PM EST
    tim kaine, gov. of va, ran on just such a platform: he is personally opposed to the death penalty, and would like to see it gone, but he will uphold the law as currently written. to his credit, he also opposes choice, with respect to abortion, so he's at least being consistent, even if you don't agree with him.

    well, um, actually, um, the death penalty does deter, that's a historically proven fact. the executed will, more likely than not, never commit another criminal act. or any act.

    whether it deters anyone else is another issue entirely. seems to me it doesn't though, else we'd have far fewer murders, rapes, etc. it didn't seem to really deter anyone back in the days when executions were festive, public events either. if it had, we wouldn't be reading about them today.


    Speaking of Obama (none / 0) (#12)
    by Jgarza on Mon Nov 12, 2007 at 04:17:55 PM EST
    I love holidays i can watch able news all day.  Tweety is completely wetting himself over Obama at the Jefferson Jackson Dinner(which was a good speech).  Axelrod was on there, lots of soft balls.  As much as a like Obama, and get the same gushy feelings Tweet does, I want these guys to be tough on our candidates now.  I doubt they will be this gushy during the general.  Last thing i want is another John Kerry, someone coming out of the primary with out us ever discussing his/her weaknesses.

    Actually many of us did discuss (none / 0) (#15)
    by Molly Bloom on Mon Nov 12, 2007 at 05:04:27 PM EST
    the fact JFK was terrible on the stump- wooden and a cold fish. All politicians are vulnerable to the flip flop charge, but who know Kerry would actually make it worse. I didn't vote for him in the primary, but I did in the general.

    I tend to agree with the Bob Somersby/BTD theory.


    Please take this discussion to another thread (none / 0) (#17)
    by Jeralyn on Mon Nov 12, 2007 at 05:13:26 PM EST
    and keep this one to the death penalty and Obama. Thanks.

    I was surprised to learn recently (none / 0) (#19)
    by oculus on Mon Nov 12, 2007 at 07:43:17 PM EST
    Russia does not have the death penalty.

    only dennis & ron (none / 0) (#21)
    by allwrits on Mon Nov 12, 2007 at 08:26:07 PM EST
    My understanding of the top tier candidates (and I am really, really stretching the term) only Dennis and Ron Paul meaningfully oppose state killing.  

    Obama of course is a hell of a lot better than Clinton and Richardson on the issue.  Richardson -- who is purportedly privately opposed -- killed an abolition bill in New Mexico on the eve of announcing his run.  Hillary's spouse famously killed a mentally handicapped guy in the run up to the New Hampshire primary a few cycles ago.

    With that said I would rather have Obama nominating judges than Hillary -- imagine Justices  Diane Wood, Jack Balkin, & Akhil Reed Amar.