Beto Says He'll End Federal Death Penalty

Beto O'Rourke
Beto O'Rourke / Getty Images
March 15, 2019

Presidential hopeful Robert O'Rourke said Thursday that if elected, he would suspend capital punishment on the federal level.

O'Rourke's announcement of his views on the death penalty came just hours after he first announced his bid for the White House, Fox News reported. En route to another appearance, O'Rourke called in to Radio Iowa, where he was asked about California Gov. Gavin Newsom's (D.) recent decision to issue a moratorium on the death penalty in his own state.

"As president, would you suspend capital punishment at the federal level?" O'Rourke's interviewer asked.

"I would. It's not an equitable, fair, just system right now—the guarantees and safeguards against wrongful prosecution, the disproportionate number of people of color who comprise our criminal justice system," O'Rourke said in response.

"And on moral grounds," he said, "I oppose the death penalty."

There are currently just 62 offenders on federal death row, according to the most recent data from the Death Penalty Information Center. Since the death penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1976, just three federal offenders—including Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh—have been executed, all under then-president George W. Bush. Of the 37 federal executions since 1927 that the DPIC tracks, 29 (78 percent) have been white.

O'Rourke's stance is part of an increasing shift on the left towards death penalty abolition. 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton supported capital punishment for "egregious cases." But the most recent data from Gallup indicate that just 31 percent of Democrats support the penalty, down from a peak of 53 in the mid-2000s. By contrast, 73 percent of Republicans and 47 percent of independents are capital punishment backers.

2020 Democrats have been quick to react to this reality. The Daily Beast reported that many of the top contenders—including Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders—explicitly celebrated Newsom's decision. This, the Beast argued, may prove a problem for "moderate" Joe Biden, who backed enhanced death penalty legislation in the 1990s.