Bruce Anderson

The hypocrisy of Donald Trump’s death penalty critics

The hypocrisy of Donald Trump's death penalty critics
Donald Trump (photo: Getty)
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Everyone is entitled to complain about Donald Trump's behaviour after the presidential election. No one should be surprised. He is acting entirely in character. It was always certain that he would become the worst loser in history. In comparison, Ted Heath, the incredible sulk, seems almost gracious.

But there is one respect in which the President's detractors, including Joe Biden, may be guilty of hypocrisy: when it comes to the death penalty. In recent weeks Donald Trump has faced much criticism for allowing executions to take place during the presidential transition period. Previous outgoing Presidents had taken the view that if a condemned federal prisoner had exhausted every hope except Presidential clemency, that decision should be left to their successor.

Yet there seems no reason why this view should prevail. A federal prisoner on death row would not only have been tried and convicted, but would have been allowed an almost interminable number of appeals. No one on death row could claim he had been denied due process. During the long transition period, the United States government must continue to function. Why should that not include executions?

Even so, there was a convention. Mr Trump has chosen to disregard it. He was never noted for adherence to conventions. But his enemies insist that amidst the ruins of all his hopes, he is still enjoying an almost obscene gratification from sending criminals to their deaths.

That said, we can assume that few indeed of those critics are in favour of capital punishment, but in other circumstances. There are exploiting Mr Trump's alleged malfeasance to discredit the death penalty. There is a false syllogism. 'Donald Trump is in favour of capital punishment. Donald Trump is a bad man. Only bad men are in favour of capital punishment.'

Yet many of those Democrats who are protesting most vociferously are ignoring their own Party's ambivalent record on capital punishment. This is largely explained by scar tissue arising from the Willie Horton affair. Horton was a murderer who had been sentenced to life without parole, in Massachusetts. When Michael Dukakis was Governor of Massachusetts, Horton was allowed a weekend's leave. He absconded, but was rearrested, after he had committed an especially brutal rape. The Maryland Judge who sentenced him refused to return him to Massachusetts, saying that he wanted to ensure that Horton never again breathed free air.

In the 1988 Presidential Election Campaign, Horton's crimes were blazoned over America in a ruthless attempt to depict Governor Dukakis, by then the Democratic nominee, as soft on crime.

Later Democrats were determined not to make themselves similarly vulnerable. In January 1992, at the beginning of the Presidential campaign, Ricky Ray Rector was awaiting execution in Arkansas. After committing murder, Rector had shot himself in the head, blowing away a significant portion of his brain. He may have been sane when he committed the murder: not when he came to pay for his crime. As part of his final meal, he ordered a piece of pie, but decided to leave it for later. Governor Bill Clinton, who could have reprieved this man-vegetable, made sure that he was in Arkansas on the night of the execution. He was not going to be Willie-Hortoned.

As for Mr Biden, he was a hard-line Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. There was never a hint that he had a scintilla of doubt over the death penalty. Indeed, it was legislation he steered through the Senate which ensured that four out of the five death-row inmates awaiting execution during the most recent transition period were at Mr Trump's mercy. He was responsible for tightening the law so that their crimes became federal offences.

Joe Biden in 1994 (video: C-SPAN)

Mr Biden seems to have changed his mind. Is this because he now takes a different moral position? Or is it a need to placate an increasingly left-wing Democrat core vote? Those questions are unlikely to receive clear answers.

One out of the five facing death is a woman. She had been claiming to be pregnant, falsely. She then drove a few hundred miles, found a woman who was pregnant, killed her, and ripped the baby from her womb. When does evil turn into madness, and vice-versa? But if she had been adjudged to be sane enough to stand trial, under a penal system which includes capital punishment, it is hard to believe that there are many more deserving candidates.

All in all, the world is a healthier place because none of those who are being denied a pardon will ever again walk upon its surface. When Mr Trump's record is eventually considered in a clear-eyed and unpartisan way, these death sentences will not weigh the scales against him.