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.”
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