Bernie Sanders Sticks to Principles, Opposes Death Penalty for Dylan Roof
Sticking to his principled rejection of capital punishment, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is opposing the Justice Department’s decision to seek the death penalty for Dylann Roof, the 22-year-old white supremacist accused of killing nine black parishioners during a Bible study session at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina last June.
“Sen. Sanders opposes the death penalty,” Sanders campaign spokesman Michael Briggs wrote to the Huffington Post on Wednesday. “He believes those who are convicted of the most horrible crimes should be imprisoned for the rest of their lives without the possibility of parole.”
Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced on Tuesday that the DOJ will seek the death penalty for Roof. “The nature of the alleged crime and the resulting harm compelled this decision,” Lynch explained, while prosecutors cited nine aggravating factors, including Roof’s “hatred and contempt towards African-Americans” and that he allegedly “targeted men and women participating in a Bible study group at the church” as contributing to their decision to seek the ultimate punishment.
While President Barack Obama—who has called capital punishment “deeply troubling”—supports executions in certain cases where society “needs to express its outrage,” and Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton favors the death penalty in “certain egregious cases,” Sanders has long opposed what critics call “state-sanctioned murder.” The 74-year-old democratic socialist explained his position during a May 2015 appearance on the Thom Hartmann Show:
“There are people who commit horrendous, horrendous, horrendous crimes: we all know that. And we are furious at them, we can’t understand their barbarity. But I think, as with so much violence in this world today, I just don’t think the state itself, whether it’s the state government or federal government, should be in the business of killing people. So when you have people who have done terrible, terrible things they’re gonna spend the rest of their lives in jail, and that’s a pretty harsh punishment.”
The United States is the only Western nation that still puts prisoners to death. The US executes the most people after China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and more people are executed in America than in North Korea. The US also ranks among only a handful of nations which execute mentally ill prisoners in violation of international law.
In Norway, by contrast, where white supremacist Anders Behring Breivik massacred 77 people, most of them teenagers, during a July 2011 shooting and bombing rampage, a different attitude toward crime and punishment prevails. Breivik was sentenced to 21 years in prison, the maximum term allowable under Norwegian law, and is imprisoned in a three-room cell suite where he enjoys the use of a private gym, Japanese meditation, 15-channel TV/DVD entertainment and pornography on demand.
Although around 60 percent of Americans favor the death penalty for convicted murderers, support for capital punishment is at a 40-year low, according to a 2013 Gallup poll. Nineteen states—most recently Republican-controlled Nebraska—and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty.
Opposition to capital punishment is growing as more Americans are educated about the facts about the death penalty. There is no evidence that executions deter crime, and plenty of evidence that capital punishment is discriminatory and applied disproportionately against the poor. There is also growing evidence that innocent people have been executed, and multiple recent botched executions have highlighted what critics call the unconstitutionally cruel and unusual nature of capital punishment.
Even some conservatives are evolving on the issue. One abolitionist argument that appeals to fiscal conservatives is that the death penalty is much more expensive than life imprisonment. In California, taxpayers have spent more than $4 billion maintaining capital punishment since it was reinstated in 1978. That’s $308 million for each of the 13 executions that have occurred during that period.
Indeed, fiscal and religious concerns, along with the strongly-held conservative belief that government management cannot be trusted, are driving a shift to a more anti-death penalty stance among right-wing lawmakers and voters, as reflected in the Nebraska vote. Yet prominent Democrats, including Obama, Clinton, Lynch and California Attorney General (and now Senate candidate) Kamala Harris continue to support a practice banned in every other Western nation.
But not Sanders. “When we talk about criminal justice reform, I believe it is time for the United States of America to join almost every other Western, industrialized country on Earth in saying no to the death penalty,” Sanders said during an October 2015 speech on the Senate floor. “We are all shocked and disgusted by some of the horrific murders that we see in this country, seemingly every week. And that is precisely why we should abolish the death penalty. At a time of rampant violence and murder, the state should not be part of that process.”
This article was also published on Daily Kos.