At a joint press conference with Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany Angela Merkel Friday afternoon, President Obama was asked about the botched execution of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma this week. The President responded by expressing his qualified support for capital punishment, along with some caveats, while promising to have Attorney General Eric Holder come up with an “analysis” of… well, of something. Then, we can all ask ourselves some “difficult questions.”
Earlier this week, we brought you two opinions on the Clayton Lockett execution that were similar in many respects. My attitude was “That execution sucked, but fuck that guy, but also, stop executing people,” while Bob Cesca was like “That execution sucked, but fuck that guy, but also, keep executing people if we can get it right.”
President Obama, it seems, agrees with Bob. Asked to comment on the execution, the President said “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 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,” the President added, “we have seen a 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.”
“All of these, I think, do raise significant questions about how the death penalty is being applied,” President Obama concluded. “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, you know, 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.”
I can’t say I’m disappointed, because this has been President Obama’s fairly consistent position for a very long time. As a state legislator, he worked to make the death penalty less racist and less fallible, but he still supported its use in terms nearly identical to those he cited today:
In 2008, then-Senator Obama spoke out against a Supreme Court decision striking down a law allowing for the execution of child rapists, saying, at the time, “I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for the most egregious of crimes,” adding “I think that the rape of a small child, 6 or 8 years old, is a heinous crime and if a state makes a decision that under narrow, limited, well-defined circumstances the death penalty is at least potentially applicable, that that does not violate our Constitution.”
The President, like many, views the death penalty as something worth holding onto despite its flaws, on the premise that it can theoretically be perfected. That view marks a change since 1996, when he opposed capital punishment, but I don’t believe that shift is the result of political calculation. I think the President’s view evolved with his life experiences, with the traumatic events of our times. If ever there were an opportunity to turn on capital punishment, this was the moment, with no more elections to win, no policy fight to risk, and a nation aghast at Oklahoma’s callousness. As a constitutional law scholar, he had ample grounds to view this execution as a game-changer.
The President’s response wasn’t remarkable, then, in its substance, but in its bloodlessness. When this President speaks about something, you know if he cares. Because of the horror of the Lockett execution, he had to say something, and he had to make “concerned face,” but he’s been expecting this question for days, and clearly wanted to just get past it with as little change to the status quo as possible. Bob nailed it. Even among critics of the death penalty, there is an ambivalence about changing it, let alone ending it.