October 20, 2010

Gubernatorial Candidates Caught Up in Death Penalty Debates

With Election Day less than two weeks away, debates over the death penalty are heating up in gubernatorial races in California, Connecticut and Illinois.

On Oct. 14, California GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, a staunch death penalty supporter, released a television ad attacking her Democratic opponent, California Attorney General Jerry Brown, for his position on the death penalty, the Associated Press reported. The AP story says the ad “misleads voters” by focusing only on part of Brown’s record on capital punishment. Whitman’s campaign released the ad shortly after Brown’s Sept. 28 order to temporarily halt executions in California. Brown cited a shortage of Sodium Pentothal, a drug that renders condemned inmates unconscious before they are injected with lethal drugs, as the reason for the stay on executions, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Although Brown did not frame this decision as a political stand on the issue, he has gained a reputation as a death penalty opponent over the course of his decades-long political career, as the AP reported, noting that as California’s governor from 1975 to 1983, Brown vetoed pro-death penalty legislation. And during a 1992 Democratic presidential primary debate, he said he was “morally opposed to the death penalty,” according to the AP. During this year’s campaign for governor, however, he pledged at an Oct. 2 debate with Whitman to “faithfully carry out our law on executions.” Whitman has repeatedly accused Brown of being “a moving target” on the issue, according to theSan Francisco Chronicle.

Capital punishment has also become an issue in Connecticut’s race for governor, partly because the death penalty could be used in a murder case in New Haven, Conn., that has received national attention. Defendant Steven Hayes was convicted earlier this month of a brutal triple murder, and a jury began hearing arguments Oct. 18 on whether he should receive the death penalty, NPR reported. The Republican candidate for governor, former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley, supports the death penalty, while Democratic candidate Dan Malloy, a former mayor of Stamford, Conn., wants to abolish capital punishment in the state, according to local news channel WFSB.  The candidates sparred over the issue in an Oct. 5 television debate: Malloy said he would abolish the death penalty in future cases (thereby allowing Hayes to be executed if he is sentenced to death), while Foley reaffirmed his support for the death penalty, pledging not to change the state’s laws, the Hartford Courant reported.

Meanwhile, candidates for governor of Illinois disagree on whether the state’s 10-year moratorium on capital punishment should continue, according to The State Journal-Register. A campaign spokeswoman for Democratic incumbentPat Quinn said that although Quinn supports the death penalty “when applied carefully and fairly,” he believes the moratorium “gives the state an opportunity to reflect on the issue and create safeguards to make sure the death penalty is not being imposed improperly in Illinois,” according to The State Journal-Register.  Quinn’s Republican challenger, Illinois State SenatorBill Brady, has said he would end the moratorium, The State Journal-Registerreported.

According to a new survey by the Pew Research Center, 62% of Americans support the death penalty, while 30% oppose it. This is nearly identical to the level of support in 2007, but somewhat lower than earlier in the 2000s and significantly lower than in the 1990s. In 1996, 78% favored the death penalty and just 18% were opposed.  Today, roughly one-third (32%) of death penalty opponents say religion is the most important factor in shaping their view of the issue, compared with 13% of death penalty supporters who cite religion as the biggest influence on their position.

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