Kamala Harris Touts 'Fierce Opposition to the Death Penalty' But In 2014 Defended It In Federal Court

California senator in damage control mode after New York Times labels her 'flawed political leader'

Kamala Harris
Kamala Harris / Getty Images
May 21, 2018

Senator Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) said on Friday that her "career as a prosecutor was marked by fierce opposition to the death penalty," but it was just four years ago that she was defending the California death penalty in federal court.

The new stance came days after Harris was spotlighted as a "flawed political leader" by the New York Times for her reluctance to allow for a new DNA test to be used in the case of Kevin Cooper, a man on death row who many believe was framed for murder. Harris declined to comment on the Sunday story but called author Nicholas Kristof on Friday to say she felt "awful" after reading his story. She put out a statement touting her record of opposing the death penalty, which has since been added to the story.

"My career as a prosecutor was marked by fierce opposition to the death penalty while still upholding the law and a commitment to fixing a broken criminal justice system," Harris wrote on Facebook, urging California to allow for DNA testing to be used in Cooper's case.

Harris's Senate office didn't respond to a request for information to support the claim that her career was "marked by fierce opposition to the death penalty," a claim that wasn't challenged by the New York Times despite major action taken by Harris as California's attorney general to defend the state's death penalty.

In 2014, Harris went to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to urge a reversal of a U.S. District Court ruling that California's death penalty was unconstitutional.

In her brief to the federal court, which can be read in full here, Harris defended California's death penalty, which was criticized by the lower court as dysfunctional because of the small percentage of people on death row who actually end up being executed. The judge ruled that the death penalty was "arbitrarily inflicted."

"California provides capital defendants with substantial opportunities to challenge their convictions—and resources for doing so—for the precise purpose of ensuring that the death penalty will not be 'arbitrarily' imposed," Harris wrote in her appeal of the ruling. "Providing that sort of careful, individualized review through direct appeal and state habeas proceedings takes time."

Harris also wrote off policy concerns over the death penalty, pointing out that voters in the state rejected a proposal to abolish the death penalty.

"There has long been healthy public debate over whether to impose the death penalty at all—and, if it is to be imposed, over how best to balance important interests in accuracy, finality, and timeliness in a way that is fiscally manageable and fair to capital defendants, to the public, and to the victims of terrible crimes and their families," Harris wrote. "In 2012, California voters considered and rejected Proposition 34, which would have ended capital punishment in the State."

She argued that "the court mistook its policy critique" of the death penalty "as a proper basis for legal judgment."

The 9th Circuit ruled unanimously on the side of Harris and upheld California's death penalty in 2015.

Harris, who has long maintained that she is personally opposed to the death penalty, had been urged by others opposed to let the ruling stand so it could be used as a tool to challenge death sentences in other states.

In a piece for the San Francisco Chronicle, "Why does Kamala Harris defend the death penalty?," Harris was criticized by a legal scholar opposed to the death penalty for claiming she is personally opposed to the death penalty as she staunchly defended it in court.

"Harris and Brown could simply concede that California's death penalty system is unconstitutional and stop defending it in the federal courts," wrote Stanford Law School's Mugambi Jouet just before the Ninth Circuit's 2015 ruling.

"Ironically, Harris insists that she is personally against the death penalty, as former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder claimed while continuing to seek it in federal cases," he wrote. "It is not too late for Harris to stand on the right side of history."

Harris did notably refuse to pursue the death penalty as San Francisco district attorney in 2004 against a 21-year-old gang member who killed a cop with a semi-automatic rifle.

Vox concluded last year that her "stance on the constitutionality of the death penalty is a bit of a mystery."

Published under: Kamala Harris