Sen. Kamala Harris declared her support for ending executions at the federal level Thursday as she and most of her fellow Democratic presidential candidates applauded Gov. Gavin Newsom’s move halting executions in California.
Harris said in an NPR interview that if she was elected, she would follow Newsom’s lead and block the U.S. government from executing any of the 62 people on federal death row — a group that includes infamous figures like Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof.
“No one would be executed if you were president of the United States, for any crime?” asked Jay Inskeep, the NPR Morning Edition host.
“Correct, correct,” Harris replied. “Not in the United States.”
The U.S. government hasn’t executed anyone since 2003, due in part to the lengthy appeals process for capital cases. The vast majority of executions in the country are carried out by a handful of state governments, and the president doesn’t have any say over those decisions.
Still, Newsom’s moratorium highlighted how the issue of capital punishment has emerged as a liberal rallying cry, with Harris and many other Democrats in the 2020 race opposing the death penalty and President Trump suggesting that he’s ready to debate them on the issue.
Harris has faced questions from both the right and left over her record on the issue. As district attorney of San Francisco, she sparked controversy and infuriated police unions when she refused to seek the death penalty for a defendant who shot and killed a police officer.
But as attorney general, she declined to take a stance on two ballot measures that would have repealed the death penalty in California, unlike Newsom, who supported them. Harris argued that she needed to be impartial — the attorney general is responsible for approving the language describing initiatives on the ballot — but her silence on the hot-button debates disappointed progressives.
The senator lauded Newsom’s moratorium decision Wednesday, calling it “an important day for justice and for the state of California.”
That drew a clear contrast with Trump, who blasted the governor’s move in a tweet. Previously, Trump has professed his support for capital punishment and has publicly mused about imposing a death penalty for drug dealers, an idea he said he got from Chinese president Xi Jinping. He said after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting last year that he wanted to see the death penalty be brought back “into vogue.”
Defying voters, the Governor of California will halt all death penalty executions of 737 stone cold killers. Friends and families of the always forgotten VICTIMS are not thrilled, and neither am I!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 13, 2019
Most of the other top Democrats in the race, including Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke have all said they oppose the death penalty.
Two other western state governors in the running — Jay Inslee of Washington and John Hickenlooper of Colorado — also placed moratoriums on executions in their states, similar to Newsom’s move. Inslee stopped executions in 2014, saying “there are too many flaws in the system,” although that decision was moot after the Washington state Supreme Court invalidated the state’s death penalty last year. Hickenlooper put his moratorium in place in 2013 after being faced with the possible execution of an inmate.
The one big exception on the Democratic side of the aisle is potential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden. As a senator, Biden repeatedly stressed his pro-death penalty bona fides in the 90’s, helping write the 1994 crime bill that expanded the use of capital punishment at the federal level. Some observers had noted that his bill would make the death penalty eligible for “everything but jaywalking,” Biden declared on the Senate floor in June 1991. Expect comments like those to be front and center in Democratic primary debate if Biden makes his third bid for the White House in the coming months.
Nationally, the use of the death penalty has seen a steep decline over the last decade, as multiple states struggle to secure lethal injection drugs and juries increasingly opt for other sentences. Twenty-five people were executed around the country in 2018, compared with 52 in 2009, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Public opinion has also trended against capital punishment for years, although a Pew Research Center survey showed support for the punishment ticking up in 2018. The group’s latest poll found that 54 percent of U.S. adults support capital punishment and 39 percent oppose it.