In 2017, The Times They Are A-Changin’ is more than just a prophetic Bob Dylan song (and album) riffing on social change, it’s a prudent observation about waning public support for the death penalty – especially among Democrats.
Gone are the blood-lusting, big-haired days of 1992, when Bill Clinton was first-elected. Most forget, Clinton prevailed despite the spectacle of his unprecedented and unbecoming posturing on the death penalty; cultivating a “tough on crime” persona, “Bubba” returned to Arkansas from the campaign trail in a cynical, self-serving move, to oversee the troubled execution of a brain-damaged 42-year-old black man, Ricky Ray Rector.
Nowadays, democratic distaste for the death penalty is blowing in a suffocating, sepulchral wind; currently it threatens to engulf, and perhaps darken, the political future of Virginia Governor, Terry McAuliffe. McAuliffe has the thankless job no human in civilized society should – he has to to decide whether to grant clemency to William Morva – a severely mentally-ill man scheduled to be executed on July 6.
McAuliffe insists he’s personally opposed to the death penalty, but he has also vowed that he’s willing to impose it, which he did, recently, allowing the execution of Ricky Gray to proceed in January. In fact, McAuliffe bears the ignominious distinction of being the only sitting Democratic governor to allow an execution to go forward – both Gray’s and the execution of Alfredo Prieto in 2015 – a tangible marker when it comes to newfound Democratic dissatisfaction with the death penalty – and a sign that the times, truly, they are a-changin’.
If, from the tangled morass surrounding the death penalty generally, and Morva’s case, specifically – Governor McAuliffe is to emerge from his life or death decision a standard-bearer of modern-day democratic values – a truly viable candidate for Commander-in-Chief in 2020 (and beyond) – there is only one action he can take, that he must take: McAuliffe must spare Mr. Morva.
Last year, even before the 2016 Democratic Party platform broke with Hillary Clinton’s indefensible stance against abolishing capital punishment, political reporter Kira Lerner asked what the smart money today suggests is purely rhetorical, “Is Hillary Clinton the Last Democratic Presidential Candidate to Support the Death Penalty?” Lerner observed: “Being opposed to capital punishment is no longer a handicap for Democratic presidential candidates; in fact, taking a strong stance against the death penalty may even be beneficial in both a primary and general election. And experts say we can expect to see a time in the near future when support for the practice could actually be a liability.”
Glancing about the country there is plenty of evidence suggesting Lerner’s prognostication is a fait accompli. For example, in May, in Philadelphia, civil rights attorney Larry Krasner won the democratic nomination for District Attorney despite vowing to never seek the death penalty. Likewise, in Denver, Colorado, Democratic prosecutor Beth McCann was elected despite making a similar pledge. And, in Orlando, Florida, the elected chief prosecutor, Aramis Ayala, also a Democrat, courageously swore-off the death penalty, starting a legal firestorm that smolders still. In California, and even in traditional, accepting hotbeds of capital punishment, like Alabama, democratic acceptance of the death penalty has plummeted.
In fact, the writing isn’t just on the wall for Democratic candidates when it comes to their electorate’s disenchantment with the death penalty, it’s in a cogent oped written by former New Mexico Governor, Bill Richardson. In “I carried out the death penalty as governor. I hope others put it to rest,” Richardson argues, “[t]o effectively represent the interests of citizens, and protect our nation’s role as a global leader, a new generation of policymakers and politicians must put the death penalty to rest once and for all.”
Starting with Mr. Morva’s untreated, severely debilitating mental illness that was directly involved in the crimes he committed, there are many good, even honorable reasons, for Governor McAuliffe to spare Mr. Morva’s life. And then, as Bob Dylan might wryly sing, there’s politics. So, come senators, congressmen – and yes, you too, Governor McAuliffe – please heed the call. Don’t stand in the doorway. Don’t block up the hall. For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled . . . . For the times, they are a-changin’.
Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter @SteveCooperEsq