In previous elections, support for death penalty abolition has been politically toxic, but the positions and rhetoric from many of the candidates in the 2016 race shows that the political landscape has changed. Some candidates have announced their opposition to the death penalty, and more have pointed to the numerous problems with it. Here is a breakdown of the 13 presidential candidates’ positions on capital punishment.
Jeb Bush: “I have to admit that I’m conflicted about this.”
As governor of Florida, Jeb Bush signed 21 death warrants. He ran for governor emphasizing that he is “tough on crime”, and touted his support of the death penalty. In 2000, he wrote an opinion piece for the Sun-Sentinel, titled Justice is Working, where he contested a study of Florida’s death penalty that found a concerning number of errors. In the piece, he advocated for reforms that would accelerate the appeal process and increase the number of executions. Florida leads the nation in exonerations, with 26 since 1976. Shortly before the end of his term as governor, he called for a review of Florida’s death penalty process. Recently he has expressed concerns about whether or not the death penalty is an effective deterrent, and said that his Catholic faith makes him feel “conflicted” about the practice, although he still supports it.
Ben Carson: “I think the death penalty is something that should be decided in a civil manner with the people in the area.”
Ben Carson believes that the death penalty should be a determination made by the states.
Chris Christie: “I’ve always believed that the death penalty is appropriate, and the reason it’s appropriate is because it’s an act of self-defense.”
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie supports the death penalty. The death penalty was abolished in New Jersey under Christie’s predecessor, but he has said that he would sign a bill reinstating the death penalty, if it could ever make it to his desk. As a candidate, Christie maintained his support of the death penalty, even when directly asked about the Pope’s call for abolition in the US. Christie has made criminal justice reform central to his agenda as governor, and his presidential campaign platform, but his proposed reforms do not include efforts to reform the use of the death penalty.
Hillary Clinton: “I do think there are certain egregious cases that still deserve the consideration of the death penalty, but I’d like to see those be very limited and rare, as opposed to what we’ve seen in most states.”
Hillary Clinton’s position on the death penalty has shifted over the years. In her early work as a lawyer in Arkansas, Clinton defended people on death row and was a death penalty opponent. As First Lady, she supported a tough on crime agenda, and voiced support for the death penalty. Recently she has begun to qualify her support for the death penalty with concerns about how frequently it is applied.
Ted Cruz: “I believe the death penalty is recognition of the preciousness of human life: that for the most egregious crimes, the ultimate punishment should apply.”
Ted Cruz is perhaps the most passionate supporter of the death penalty in the presidential race. During his legal career he argued in favor of the death penalty in front of the Supreme Court five times, and as a Supreme Court clerk he prioritized the issue. He has maintained his support for the practice as a senator and as a presidential candidate.
Carly Fiorina (from senate campaign website): “Carly supports the death penalty for our nation’s worst murderers.”
During her California senate campaign, Fiorina expressed support for the death penalty, and frustration with federal court rulings that have placed a moratorium on California executions.
John Kasich: “I support the death penalty and will continue to do that because a lot of times, families want closure when they see justice done.”
John Kasich supports the death penalty. As governor, he granted clemencies more than most governors, but he has maintained support for the death penalty, claiming that it is an instrument of justice and a deterrent. Following a mass shooting in Oregon, he said that the death penalty could be used to curb gun violence.
Marco Rubio: “Protracted legal battles in death penalty cases hinder justice for the victims and erode public confidence in Florida’s criminal justice system.”
Marco Rubio supports the death penalty, although he has made few public statements on the issue. In a 2006 book he suggested that the death penalty appeals process should be “streamlined,” a measure that would increase the pace of executions.
Bernie Sanders: “The state itself, in a democratic, civilized society, should itself not be involved in the murder of other Americans.”
Bernie Sanders’s has opposed the death penalty for his entire political career, voting to repeal or restrict it several times during his tenure in Congress. Recently, he took time on the senate floor in October to condemn the practice.
Donald Trump: “I have always been a big believer, and continue to be, of the death penalty for horrendous crime.”
Donald Trump has supported the death penalty throughout his career in public life. In 1989, in response to a highly publicized sexual assault trial, Trump paid for an ad in 4 New York City newspapers advocating the return of the death penalty in New York. In the advertisement, Trump wrote “Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS! The teenagers he accused would be exonerated by DNA evidence after spending thirteen years behind bars for a crime they did not commit. Recently, on the campaign trail, Trump promised to make the death penalty compulsory for those convicted of killing police officers.