UNITED STATES NEWS

Biden’s inaction on death penalty may be a top campaign issue as Trump and DeSantis laud executions

Aug 3, 2023, 10:17 PM

CHICAGO (AP) — Capital punishment could emerge as a major campaign issue in the U.S. presidential race for the first time in 30 years, with top GOP rivals Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis already one-upping each other by touting tougher, more far-reaching death penalty laws.

Meanwhile, death penalty foes are poised to draw attention to what Democrat Joe Biden hasn’t done as president: He has taken no action on or even spoken about his 2020 campaign pledge to strike capital punishment from U.S. statutes.

A demonstration that the death penalty issue is far from academic came Wednesday when federal jurors in Pittsburgh voted to impose a death sentence for Robert Bowers for killing 11 people in a synagogue. It’s the first federal death sentence handed down during Biden’s presidency.

Trump, who restarted federal executions after a 17-year hiatus and oversaw 13 in his final six months as president, wasted no time making capital punishment a focus in his current, third presidential run. In declaring his candidacy on Nov. 15, he called for the execution of drug dealers.

In a July campaign video, Trump added another category of criminals he said deserve death.

“I will urge Congress to ensure that anyone caught trafficking children across our border receives the death penalty, immediately,” he said.

While the Justice Department announced a moratorium on federal executions in 2021, it’s a temporary pause. Nothing precludes a pro-death penalty candidate elected next year from quickly resuming them.

Florida Gov. DeSantis has put capital punishment on his agenda, too.

After not authorizing state executions for three years, DeSantis signed death warrants for the recent executions of four people — two before and two after he declared his candidacy on May 24.

He has also signed two death penalty laws since April, one allowing for executions of convicted child rapists and another letting jurors impose death sentences with less-than-unanimous votes.

“One juror,” DeSantis said, “should not be able to veto a capital sentence.”

Biden’s silence suggests he would rather the death penalty not become a campaign issue. Activists will try to force him to speak about it anyway by lobbying campaign debate moderators to pose questions on capital punishment.

“We’d like Biden to articulate his position and say it out loud,” said Abraham Bonowitz, director of Death Penalty Action.

Bonowitz’s group will also call on Biden to order the demolition of the federal death chamber, a small building on the grounds of a prison in Indiana, as proof that he’s serious about permanently ending federal executions.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, support for the death penalty has fallen from nearly 80% in the mid-1990s to around 55% in recent years. As support waned, it faded as a campaign issue.

Among the last times it featured prominently was in 1988, during George H.W. Bush’s successful race against Michael Dukakis. Bush spotlighted Dukakis’ lifelong opposition to capital punishment. In 1992, Bill Clinton emphasized his support for it in defeating Bush.

Declaring such support has long been a way for politicians to send a broader message — that they’re tough on crime.

Trump has mastered that, said Lee Kovarsky, a death penalty scholar at the University of Texas at Austin.

“So much of his campaign and government style centers on strength and masculinity — to punish without compromise,” he said. “It’s a damaging combination.”

Trump established himself as the most prolific execution president since Grover Cleveland in the 1890s when U.S. executions restarted during his 2020 campaign and continued into the lame duck period after his defeat.

William Barr, Trump’s attorney general, argued in his 2022 book that the executions were legally and morally right. He said they delivered long delayed justice to victims of brutal killings, many of them children.

Trump’s record may have partly inspired DeSantis, said Melanie Kalmanson, a Florida attorney who writes the Tracking Florida’s Death Penalty blog, noting: “It seems that there’s some sort of competition between the two” on capital punishment.

The four Florida executions this year brought the total under DeSantis to six. The most recent on June 15 was of Duane Owen who was convicted in the fatal stabbing of 14-year-old Karen Slattery and the killing of Georgianna Worden, 38.

DeSantis granted a May 22 stay so Owen could undergo mental health exams. Three days later, the day after DeSantis announced his run, he lifted the stay.

The bill lowering the juror-vote requirement to eight made Florida the state with the lowest threshold. He backed the change after jurors failed to reach unanimity to impose a death sentence on Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz, who killed 17.

DeSantis hopes the law he signed allowing for capital punishment for the rape of children will invite the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse its 5-4 finding in 2008 that executions for most crimes not involving murder violate prohibitions against “cruel and unusual” punishment.

Despite his full-throated endorsement of capital punishment, DeSantis doesn’t have Trump’s knack for wooing voters who respond to over-the-top, anti-crime rhetoric, Kovarsky said.

“That space is already occupied by Trump,” he said.

As a U.S. senator, Biden enthusiastically supported capital punishment, leading passage of a 1994 crime bill that greatly expanded the number of federal capital crimes.

“We do everything but hang people for jaywalking,” he boasted then.

Only in 2016 did the Democratic Party platform first call for the abolition of capital punishment. Biden made his opposition explicit in 2020.

Many expected Biden to fulfill his campaign pledge within days of his inauguration, perhaps by commuting all federal death sentences to life. He didn’t. And he’s taken no executive action since.

Biden may calculate his continued silence is a prudent strategy because even those frustrated by his inaction wouldn’t dare back Republicans.

“I am not at risk of voting for Donald Trump,” Kovarsky said.

Bonowitz says Biden won’t take action to keep his 2020 promise during the 2024 campaign, because he understands that voters care more about pocketbook issues than capital punishment. But skittishness by candidates worried that speaking against the death penalty will damage them politically is no longer well founded, he added.

“That,” he said, “should also make it safe for politicians to say what they really believe and stand by it.”

United States News

Associated Press

Woman holding large knife at Denver intersection shot and killed by police, chief says

DENVER (AP) — Officers shot and killed a woman who was holding a large, hunting-style knife at an intersection in downtown Denver on Sunday, police said. Officers used a Taser on the woman twice but she began advancing toward them as they tried to back up from her, Denver police Chief Ron Thomas said a […]

5 hours ago

Associated Press

2 killed when vintage plane crashes during Father’s Day event at Southern California airfield

CHINO, Calif. (AP) — Two people were killed aboard a vintage plane that crashed and burst into flames near a Southern California airfield during a weekend Father’s Day event hosted by an air museum, authorities said Sunday. The Federal Aviation Administration said the twin-engine Lockheed 12A crashed shortly after 12:30 p.m. Saturday, just west of […]

9 hours ago

Associated Press

2 people seriously injured after small plane crashes near interstate south of Denver

LARKSPUR, Colo. (AP) — Two people were hospitalized with serious injuries after their small plane crashed near Interstate 25 in Colorado on Sunday, officials said. The plane crashed in a field just off I-25 near Larkspur, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) south of Denver, after it apparently hit a sign on the highway, causing it […]

10 hours ago

Associated Press

Kansas lawmaker’s law license suspended over conflicts of interest in murder case

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A Republican Kansas lawmaker who already dropped his re-election campaign last month after he was arrested in a traffic stop has now been barred from practicing law for at least a year for mishandling conflicts of interest in a murder case. The Kansas Supreme Court ruled that state Rep. Carl Maughan […]

11 hours ago

Associated Press

Police identify Michigan splash pad shooter but there’s still no word on a motive

ROCHESTER HILLS, Mich. (AP) — Authorities on Sunday identified the man who opened fire at a splash pad in suburban Detroit before taking his own life, but his motives remained unknown as investigators worked to determine if he left behind any hint of his plans. Oakland County Sheriff’s spokesperson Stephen Huber said the shooter was […]

15 hours ago

Associated Press

7 shot when gunfire erupts at a pop-up party in Massachusetts

METHUEN, Mass. (AP) — Seven people were shot and wounded, and an eighth was hurt while running away when gunfire erupted at a large gathering of young people in Methuen, Massachusetts, authorities said Sunday. The gunfire began just before 2 a.m. after hundreds of people gathered for a pop-up party organized on social media, officials […]

15 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...

Midwestern University

Midwestern University Clinic visits boost student training & community health

Going to a Midwestern University Clinic can help make you feel good in more ways than one.

...

Sanderson Ford

3 new rides for 3 new road trips in Arizona

It's time for the Sanderson Ford Memorial Day sale with the Mighty Fine 69 Anniversary, as Sanderson Ford turned 69 years old in May.

...

Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Beat the heat, ensure your AC unit is summer-ready

With temperatures starting to rise across the Valley, now is a great time to be sure your AC unit is ready to withstand the sweltering summer heat.

Biden’s inaction on death penalty may be a top campaign issue as Trump and DeSantis laud executions