Last week, the White House issued two statements on the death penalty, one about the industrial-scale death sentences in Egypt and the other about the brutality of the execution in Oklahoma. This is quite unprecedented. It is quite unusual for the White House to even engage on the issue as the US death penalty is very largely the responsibility of the states. Years ago, before he was President, Obama was uncompromising in his opposition to capital punishment. He adjusted his public position slightly so that it would not threaten his electability. But it does not take much imagination to conclude that he would be very pleased if the death knell on capital punishment in the United States would sound during his administration.
Two days ago, in a press conference with Chancellor Merkel of Germany, he said the following in response to a question:
PRESIDENT OBAMA: What happened in Oklahoma is deeply troubling. The individual who was subject to the death penalty had committed heinous crimes, terrible crimes. And I’ve said in the past that there are certain circumstances in which a crime is so terrible that the application of the death penalty may be appropriate -- mass killings, the killings of children. But I’ve also said that in the application of the death penalty in this country, we have seen significant problems -- racial bias, uneven application of the death penalty, situations in which there were individuals on death row who later on were discovered to have been innocent because of exculpatory evidence. And all these I think do raise significant questions about how the death penalty is being applied. And this situation in Oklahoma I think just highlights some of the significant problems there.So I’ll be discussing with Eric Holder and others to get me an analysis of what steps have been taken not just in this particular instance but more broadly in this area. I think we do have to, as a society, ask ourselves some difficult and profound questions around these issues.
A presidential initiative on the death penalty would be a very important development. Some years ago in Illinois the governor set up a commission to study capital punishment. It was necessarily balanced in its composition, but its conclusions helped move Illinois from the death penalty camp into the abolitionist camp. Perhaps Obama should set up a high-level panel to advise him on this subject.