Sunday evening’s Democratic town hall wasn’t the first time the death penalty has come up on the campaign trail. And since Clinton stands in the minority in her party when it comes to support for capital punishment, it’s always interesting to watch her uncomfortably defend her “reluctant” position in support of it.
Worse yet for her was who asked the question this time: a man who had wrongfully been convicted of murder and spent 39 years behind bars, some of which were on death row.
After briefly telling his story, Ricky Jackson, who was exonerated in 2014, wanted to know how Clinton could “still take your stance on the death penalty in light of what you know right now?"
Clinton, who lobbied for her husband’s 1994 crime bill, which included a death penalty expansion, gave her usual heavily qualified response focusing on extreme federal cases like terrorism.
"This is such a profoundly difficult question," she told the audience.
“What I continue to believe is that the states have proven themselves incapable of carrying out fair trials that give any defendant all the rights defendants should have, all the support that the defendants lawyers should have, and I have said I would breathe a sigh of relief if either the Supreme Court or the states themselves began to eliminate the death penalty."
"Where I end up is this. And maybe it's a distinction that is hard to support,” she said. “At this point given the challenges we face from terrorist activities…that end up under federal jurisdiction for very limited purposes I think it can still be held in reserve for those. The kind of crimes I'm thinking of are the bombing in Oklahoma City ... the plotters and the people who carried out the attacks on 9/11.
"But a very limited use of it in cases where there has been horrific mass killings. That's really the exception that I still am struggling with. And that would only be in the federal system.”
Critics point out, however, that there’s “nothing to suggest that the federal system can’t fall victim to the same sorts of manipulations that dog the state courts.”
And while the former secretary of state is not fully embracing capital punishment, her position is markedly different from Sen. Bernie Sanders, who at February debate said that, “of course there are barbaric acts out there. But in a world of so much violence and killing, I just don’t believe that government itself should be part of the killing.”
Clinton, on the other hand, does.