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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