Tag Archives: Death Penalty

General-Election Obama and the Death Penalty

Why did Barack Obama disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy v. Louisiana? “I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for the most egregious of crimes,” Obama said at a news conference yesterday in response to the Justices’ 5-4 decision to ban the death penalty for child rapists. “I think that the rape of a small child, 6 or 8 years old, is a heinous crime and if a state makes a decision that under narrow, limited, well-defined circumstances the death penalty is at least potentially applicable that that does not violate our Constitution.” The Court could have left room for exceptions in egregious cases, he explained, “but it basically had a blanket prohibition, and I disagree with the decision.”

This from a guy who wrote in his memoir that the death penalty “does little to deter crime,” who as a State Senator helped tighten up Illinois’s approach to capital punishment in an attempt to prevent the state from sending innocent people to die (he served as a legislator under Governor Jim Ryan, who eventually imposed a moratorium when he learned that innocent people in fact were dying), and who opposed a bill that would have permitted the death penalty for gang-related murders.

Obama is no abolitionist; he has long held that the death penalty is appropriate in a small number of extraordinary cases. So, fair enough, he’s staying true to his principles. But surely as a candidate he could have seized the opportunity to validate his Democratic base by commending the Court for its prudent judgment. It wouldn’t have been a stretch for him to agree with Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote for the majority that there is “a distinction between intentional first-degree murder on the one hand and nonhomicide crimes against individual persons,” and that the latter, albeit devastating and horrid, does not pass the “egregious” test.

So what’s going on here? My best guess: Obama is brandishing his credentials as a “tough guy” Democrat and protecting himself from Swiftboat-style attacks against him as a “soft on crime,” criminal-coddling, Weatherman-hobnobbing radical. Already Floyd Brown, the nasty creator of the Willie Horton smears, has run ads assaulting Obama for his vote on gang-related murders. The threat from these guys is real, and Obama is right to steel himself for a below-the-belt fight. Again, fair enough… to a point. My concern, though, is that we’re seeing some strong and unmistakable–and, in my opinion, unmistakably troubling–early signals of a major Obama pivot heading into the general-election campaign.

There are two Obamas: Primary Obama and General-election Obama. And, unfortunately, there seems to be increasing distance between their stances on critical issues. Primary Obama was the progressive alternative to Hillary’s same-old insiderdom, the change we can believe in, a new way forward. General-election Obama is shaping up to be cut from a similar cloth as the past few (losing) Democratic presidential contenders: centrist on trade, regulation and taxes; weak-kneed and/or unprincipled on key legislation; in bed with big money and special interests; overly consulted on messaging (witness his botched apology to the Muslim women who were not allowed to stand behind him at a recent rally); insecure about toughness and thereby dangerously muscular on foreign policy and criminal justice.

A few warning signs from the past few weeks: General-election Obama broke Primary Obama’s pledge to accept public financing as a presidential candidate. General-election Obama is deploying Primary Obama’s rhetoric opposing the Patriot Act but nevertheless supporting a Senate bill that would extend Bush-era surveillance tactics and grant immunity to telecoms that enable warrantless wiretaps. Contrary to antiwar Primary Obama’s preference for diplomacy, General-election Obama wants to drop the Iraq surge in favor of unilateral intervention in Pakistan, and in one of his first appearances after defeating Clinton in the primaries, he promised AIPAC that he would do “everything in my power” to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

And now, following the Kennedy v. Louisiana ruling, General-election Obama has sided with the conservative Justices on the Supreme Court who dissented on a decision to narrow the use of the death penalty.

NJ Abolishes Capital Punishment

A very good day for death penalty abolitionists: New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine has signed into law a measure repealing the death penalty.

Roper at Work

This local news story out of Arkansas offers a daily reminder of why Roper v. Simmons was such an important case. It’s about a hearing to decide whether Uris Magana-Galdamez, a co-defendant in a murder case, should be tried as a juvenile or an adult; he was 17 and on the scene when Erickson Dimas-Martinez, a 21-year-old friend, fatally shot 17-year-old Derrick Earl Jefferson.

According to the Benton County Daily Record, “Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Martinez but are prohibited from seeking the same punishment for Galdamez because the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to sentence anyone to death for a criminal act the person committed while younger than 18.”

Another life spared.

NJ Votes to Ban Death Penalty

The New Jersey Assembly voted today to abolish the death penalty and replace it with sentences of life without parole. The State Senate approved the bill on Monday, and Governor Corzine intends to sign it next week.

Death Penalty Moratorium?

Is there a de facto national moratorium on lethal injections? Judging by the Supreme Court’s decision to spare Mississippi death row inmate Earl Berry from execution tonight, the smart money says yes.

Foster Spared

Update: Governor Perry has spared Kenneth Foster’s life.

Texas-Style Justice

Kenneth Foster may very well die today for a crime he didn’t commit. The 30-year-old prison poet was 19 and behind the wheel the night of August 14, 1996, driving three members of his gang around San Antonio on a crime spree that led to four armed robberies and the murder of Michael LaHood Jr., a 25-year-old law student. Mauricio Brown, who shot LaHood, was executed in July 2006, and the other two accomplices are serving life sentences. Foster is on death row, awaiting a lethal injection.

The decision in this case relies on Texas’s dubious “law of parties,” which holds that Foster was guilty of the murder Brown committed in part because he kept the car running and thus, the argument goes, was able to “anticipate” what Brown was about to do. The logic here is patently absurd: How does leaving the key in the ignition equate to foreknowledge of Brown’s crime? Would Foster have turned the car off for a mere mugging? More simply–and assuming Foster did, in fact, know that Brown intended to kill LaHood–why is driving the getaway car a crime punishable by death? Even more simply, why should any crime, no matter how heinous, merit the death penalty? Why are Americans clinging to such a flawed, atavistic notion of justice? If this case doesn’t make one question the basis for capital punishment, I don’t know what would.

Texas, however, can’t seem to get enough of it this week. Unless Governor Rick Perry issues a reprieve in a matter of hours, Foster will be the third inmate executed in the State of Texas in as many days; that will make him the twenty-fourth this year, and the 403rd since capital punishment was reinstated in Texas in 1982. Foster is preceded by DaRoyce Mosley, convicted for a murder he committed at 19 and executed on Tuesday, and John Joe Amador, who was killed Wednesday for allegedly murdering a cabdriver at the age of 18.

Texas law classifies 10- to 17-year-olds as juveniles; all three of these men were legally (but barely) adults at the time the crimes were committed. But it’s worth noting that Amador had served three years in California’s Youth Authority, following a conviction as an accomplice to his stepfather’s fatal stabbing. The CYA, a notorious failure when it comes to rehabilitating young offenders, locked him up for a couple of years and then saw fit to let him off on parole. I would also add that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the US Supreme Court rejected a petition to stay Amador’s execution on the grounds that his trial lawyers failed to introduce evidence about his abusive childhood. And I think it’s worth mentioning that the woman who was sitting in the front seat of the cab that night admitted under oath that she had drunk perhaps fifteen beers and a wine cooler earlier in the evening. She was able to identify Amador as the killer only after repeated interviews and a hypnosis session.