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Obama and the Death Penalty


What a difference a general election makes.

Hours after the Supreme Court handed down a ruling banning the death penalty for the rape of a child, Democratic candidate Barack Obama found his inner Scalia and declared it a miscarriage of justice.

"I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for the most egregious of crimes," he told reporters at a press conference in Chicago. This is true. Despite the assumptions of some of his admirers, for at least as long as he has held political ambitions, Barack Obama has positioned himself as a supporter of state-sanctioned murder.

There’s no question the sexual assault of a child is a monstrous thing, the kind of utterly indefensible crime that can test the resolve of anyone who opposes the death penalty on moral grounds. Indeed, it is the sort of offense death penalty supporters reach for in arguing for the "ultimate sanction." For a political candidate, it’s a particularly easy position to take. What kind of a person would attack you for saying a child rapist deserves to die?

In fact, in the recent history of the death penalty, calling for the execution of a person who commits a crime other than murder is a radical stance. Nobody has been executed for such an offense in the United States in over 40 years. Until yesterday, only two people out of more than 3,200 prisoners on death row faced execution for a crime in which the victim did not die. Affirming the death penalty for child rape would not only have potentially placed thousands more people on death row — as Justice Anthony Kennedy noted yesterday, there were 5,792 rapes of children under 12 in 2005 alone — it would have vastly broadened the net for capital crimes, a trend that would quickly become a slippery slope. Nevertheless, "I think that the rape of a small child, 6 or 8 years old, is a heinous crime," Obama said yesterday, "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." Never mind cruel and unusual punishment. (And yes, that is Obama embracing the conservative mantle of states’ rights.)

Obama’s defenders may argue, as they do about his other recent shifts to the right, that he had to take this position in order to strengthen his candidacy. No, he didn’t. The Democrats may continue to operate in a world in which opposition to the death penalty equals political death, a world shaped by that famous 1988 Dukakis moment, in which the Democratic presidential candidate was hapless when challenged to state that he would support the killing of a man who raped his wife. But times have changed. While the Democrats have embraced the death penalty, public support for it has dwindled — especially in recent years. The regular exonerations of innocent prisoners in this country (218 and counting), persistent evidence of rampant racial and economic bias, and botched executions nationwide have led people — and juries — more and more, to reject the death penalty. Chalk it up, as the Supreme Court likes to, to our "evolving standards of decency."

Unfortunately, presidential candidates have their own evolving standards of decency and, too often, they are a race to the bottom. Obama, who spoke eloquently in favor of the court’s decision granting habeas corpus to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, has now aligned himself with the same aggressively conservative justices who would have had them remain in legal limbo. Worse, he aligns himself with the belligerent Antonin Scalia, whose enthusiasm for the death penalty is so irrepressible, one would expect he’d administer the lethal chemicals himself if he could.

Informed voters will see Obama’s move for what it is: an opportunistic embrace of a sharply right-wing stance to shed the (dubious) stigma of being "the most liberal senator" in the Congress. In a week that saw him backpedal on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and on free trade, his supporters may see this as just another move rightward in his path toward the White House. But this is more than that. This is a reactionary stance that betrays those who would be his natural base of support, not to mention those communities that are actually affected by the death penalty. The fact that Obama was speaking at a press conference in Chicago is especially painful. It is a city that, as we speak, is handing subpoenas to police officers who tortured African American men on the South Side into giving confessions for crimes that they didn’t commit — men who ended up on death row. Obama, famously, was an organizer on the South Side of Chicago in this era. He knows how the death penalty system really works. He’s just choosing to ignore it for the sake of cheap political points. How much he will actually gain from his pro-death penalty proclamation is unclear. Is it more than he stands to lose?

It is a sad day when a candidate who so many genuinely saw as bringing "change we can believe in" takes a politically motivated and intellectually dishonest stance in a matter of life and death. Obama risks alienating those who gave him his rise to the top, by betraying the very ideas that attracted them to him in the first place.

LILIANA SEGURA is a Staff Writer and Associate Editor at AlterNet, where this piece originally appeared. She can be reached at:




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