Supercut video shows Biden’s U-turn on the death penalty - now it’s time to act

He once said ‘We do everything but hang people for jaywalking in this bill.’

Helen Elfer
Thursday 28 October 2021 15:04
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211006 Biden On Death Penalty

Throughout much of the 1980s and ‘90s, President Joe Biden showed unwavering support for the death penalty, frequently holding it up as the ultimate example of his “tough on crime” stance.

But after decades of taking a consistent pro-death penalty position, Mr Biden appeared to change his mind. In 2019, as the then-presidential candidate hit the campaign trail, he congratulated New Hampshire for abolishing the practice.

During a campaign event, Mr Biden praised the first-in-the-nation primary state, saying: “Congratulations to y’all ending the death penalty.”

It was one of the first indicators of the president’s softening attitudes towards capital punishment.

Back in 1991, Mr Biden’s then-views on the death penalty were made clear in a speech to the Senate, in which he lambasted the White House for only issuing the punishment once in 1,000 days. “Is he trying to tell me there’s one person out there in the last thousand days that has met the statutory requirement of death?” Mr Biden said.

The following year, Mr Biden boasted of the number of death penalty offenses included in a crime bill he supported. Pushing back on accusations from Republicans that it was a “pro-criminal bill,” he listed the provisions that proved the bill was tough on crime.

“It provides 53 death penalty offenses,” he said. “We do everything but hang people for jaywalking in this bill.”

In another Senate session, after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings, Mr Biden spoke proudly of the fact that domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh could be executed under the 1994 Crime Bill he authored.

“That bill is the only reason there is a death penalty,” he said. “Had we not voted for that bill, had that not passed last year, this bombing would, finding the person who committed the bombing, that person under federal law would not be eligible to be put to death.”

Mr Biden’s rhetoric at the time matched that of other Democrats, who supported a more robust stance on law enforcement. But in the intervening years, as Mr Biden left the Senate to become Barack Obama’s vice president and then seek the presidency himself, he changed his tone to be more in line with other Democrats.

Earlier this year, when the Supreme Court was considering the federal death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, Mr Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki expressed the president’s reservations.

“President Biden has made clear, as he did on the campaign trail, that he has grave concerns about whether capital punishment, as currently implemented, is consistent with the values that are fundamental to our sense of justice and fairness,” she said.

Activists have told The Independent this turning point shows now is the time to act - and quickly, before the political dial turns again.

“Death penalty opponents want the president to strike while the iron is hot,” says Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

The Independent and the nonprofit Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ) have launched a joint campaign calling for an end to death penalty in the US.. The RBIJ has attracted more than 150 well-known signatories to their Business Leaders Declaration Against the Death Penalty - with The Independent as the latest on the list. We join high-profile executives like Ariana Huffington, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson as part of this initiative and are making a pledge to highlight the injustices of the death penalty in our coverage.

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