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How Democratic Candidates Have Wrestled With The Question Of The Death Penalty


The Trump administration announced last week that it's bringing back the federal death penalty. It hasn't been used since 2003. This is both a law enforcement and a political issue as we head into the 2020 election. The political will be on display tomorrow and Wednesday. That's when the Democratic presidential candidates debate and are likely to take questions on the issue. NPR's Ron Elving will be watching. He joins us now.

Welcome to the studio, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Audie.

CORNISH: So we've had what feels like generations of debate over the value and the morality of the death penalty. But is it seen as widely supported?

ELVING: Yes, but it has risen and fallen in rather dramatic fashion. In the mid-1960s, the Gallup Poll found only 42% of Americans favored the death penalty, but then it spiked with the crime rates that also spiked over the next 20 years. So you get to 1988, and support for the death penalty is nearly 80%.

CORNISH: And this is also a period when politicians, including presidential candidates, of course, are talking about capital punishment.

ELVING: Yes, and it became an issue in the 1988 presidential contest.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Bush supports the death penalty for first-degree murderers. Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty. He allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison.

CORNISH: Now, I'm from Massachusetts, so I remember. Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis got this question from a debate moderator.


BERNARD SHAW: Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?

MICHAEL DUKAKIS: No, I don't, Bernard. And I think you know that I have opposed the death penalty during all of my life.

CORNISH: Ron, this was a really striking moment at the time. It's, frankly, surprising to hear it now. This answer was seen as damaging to Dukakis, right?

ELVING: You'd have to say so, in part for his seemingly emotionless reaction to such a visceral challenge but also for his opposition to capital punishment. And this would be an even bigger issue for politicians as the crack epidemic of the '80s and '90s would rage across the country and violent crime increased.

CORNISH: By 1992, Democrats had nominated Bill Clinton. He was the governor of Arkansas. He'd actually signed execution orders. And the issue comes up again.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They're a new generation of Democrats - Bill Clinton and Al Gore. They've sent a strong signal to criminals by supporting the death penalty.

ELVING: And Clinton also signed the 1994 crime bill, which Senator Joe Biden had a lot to do with fashioning. And both Clinton and Biden ran for reelection in the '90s on that tough-on-crime theme.

CORNISH: And, Ron, this came back to haunt Hillary Clinton in 2016 during her run, where you had Black Lives Matter activists pushing her on the issue of mass incarceration. She actually still defended the death penalty in certain cases in her debates with Bernie Sanders.


HILLARY CLINTON: I do, for very limited, particularly heinous crimes, believe it is an appropriate punishment.

ELVING: Then in 2016, the Democratic Party adopted an explicit plank in the platform calling for the abolition of capital punishment. And Hillary Clinton and her campaign announced they would go along with the platform.

CORNISH: Ron, that brings us to today. President Trump remains a supporter of the death penalty and, in fact, has been for many years.

ELVING: Well, back before he became a politician, he was a loud public advocate of the death penalty, including for the Central Park Five. Those were young boys who were accused of a particularly horrific crime but were found to have been wrongly accused. And the president has found ways to keep talking about this issue.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We believe that criminals who murder police officers should immediately - with trial - get the death penalty but quickly. The trial should go fast.

CORNISH: Ron, how are you expecting Democrats to talk about this in the debates this week?

ELVING: They're going to have to. One Democrat, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, has said he would keep the death penalty for terrorists. But the consensus of the field is that the death penalty should be a part of the past. Support for it has fallen more than 20 points in the Gallup Poll since the 1990s. But as we saw in the NPR/PBS/Marist Poll this month, only about a third of Americans want it eliminated.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ron Elving.

Ron, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.