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2020 Democrats speak out against DOJ death penalty decision

Several 2020 Democratic presidential candidates spoke out Thursday against the Justice Department’s announcement it would resume the use of the federal death penalty.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) called for a federal moratorium on the death penalty, echoing her past statements on the issue.

“Let me be clear: capital punishment is immoral and deeply flawed. Too many innocent people have been put to death,” Harris tweeted Thursday. “We need a national moratorium on the death penalty, not a resurrection.”

{mosads}Harris previously called for such a moratorium in March, one day after California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) granted 737 death row inmates a reprieve and imposed a statewide moratorium.

As attorney general and San Francisco district attorney, her track record on the issue was mixed. In a 2003 case, then-District Attorney Harris declined to seek the death penalty for a gang member in the killing of a police officer, putting her at odds with her eventual fellow senator, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

As attorney general, however, she appealed a 2014 decision by a federal judge that California’s death penalty was unconstitutional.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tweeted “Our criminal justice system has a long history of mistakes when it comes to capital punishment—especially when it comes to Black and Brown people. We cannot let a broken system decide the fate of incarcerated Americans. I oppose the death penalty.”

Warren’s rationale for opposing capital punishment echoed the answer she gave in a New York Times questionnaire earlier this year. “The evidence suggests we make mistakes that are racially tinged. We can’t do that as a country,” she said.

In 2014, when asked about then-Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to seek the death penalty for Boston Marathon bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev, Warren said she was against the death penalty but respected Holder’s decision.

A year later, however, Warren explicitly spoke out against executing Tsarnaev, saying the convicted bomber “should die in prison.”

“My heart goes out to the families here, but I don’t support the death penalty. I think he should spend his life in jail. No possibility of parole,” Warren told “CBS This Morning” a day after a jury found Tsarnaev guilty on 30 counts.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) also specifically invoked the racial and class disparities in the application of the death penalty in his statement, calling the Justice Department’s decision “disturbing” and saying it “does nothing to advance the cause of justice.”

“Throughout our nation’s history we have seen how the death penalty is not only ineffective and immoral, but also fraught with biases against people of color, low-income individuals, and those with mental illness,” Booker said.

“It is a waste of taxpayer dollars and does nothing to improve public safety. Instead, capital punishment seeks to satisfy a desire for vengeance and retribution. Our government must represent the best of who we are, not the worst. We can, and should, do better,” he added.

Booker has consistently opposed the death penalty, joining Harris in praising Newsom’s move in March and making former Vice President Joe Biden’s historical support for capital punishment a key focus of his jabs at his competitor’s criminal justice record.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also spoke out against Barr’s decision, tweeting “There’s enough violence in the world. The government shouldn’t add to it. When I am president, we will abolish the death penalty.”

Sanders has frequently spoken out against capital punishment in the House and Senate, saying in a 1991 House speech “All over the industrialized world now, countries are saying, ‘let us put an end to state murder, let us stop capital punishment’ … but here what we’re talking about is more and more capital punishment.”

However, he voted in favor of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994, which expanded use of the death penalty at the federal level. He had previously voted for an ultimately unsuccessful amendment that would replace all death sentences with life in prison, but voted for the final bill after it was removed.

A spokesman for Sanders told Politifact in 2016 that he voted for the final bill due to its ban on certain assault weapons and its inclusion of the Violence Against Women Act.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) also condemned the decision, tweeting on Thursday “The death penalty is cruel and unnecessary. We put an end to it in Washington state, and we’ll abolish it nationwide when I’m president.”

Inslee suspended the use of the death penalty in his state in 2014, saying in a news conference “There have been too many doubts raised about capital punishment, there are too many flaws in this system today … there is too much at state to accept an imperfect system.”

More than four years later in October 2018, the state supreme court struck down the death penalty in Washington.

The Justice Department announced Thursday morning it would resume federal capital punishment after more than two decades. Only three federal executions have been carried out since 1988.

“Under Administrations of both parties, the Department of Justice has sought the death penalty against the worst criminals, including these five murderers, each of whom was convicted by a jury of his peers after a full and fair proceeding,” Attorney General William Barr said in a statement Thursday.

“The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” he added. All five of the inmates named were convicted for murders of children. 

—Updated at 3:07 p.m.

Tags Bernie Sanders Cory Booker Dianne Feinstein Elizabeth Warren Eric Holder Gavin Newsom Jay Inslee Joe Biden William Barr
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