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Kerry a firm foe of death penalty

Washington Times, March 29, 2004

Sen. John Kerry opposes the death penalty almost without exception, making him the first major-party presidential candidate in more than 15 years to take such a strong stand against capital punishment.

"I know something about killing," he sometimes says when asked about it, a reference to his months in Vietnam as a swift-boat commander. "I don't like killing. That's just a personal belief I have."

He did, however, slightly amend his view in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Before then he had opposed the death penalty, even for terrorists, but he now says he supports it, in limited cases, for foreign terrorists.

The reason Mr. Kerry opposes the death penalty in most cases is because he believes it is unfairly applied by the U.S. criminal justice system.

"Sen. Kerry is outside the American mainstream," said Dianne Clements, president of Justice for All, a victims' advocacy group that favors the death penalty.

Not since the candidacy of Michael S. Dukakis, who served as Massachusetts governor while Mr. Kerry was lieutenant governor, has a major-party candidate run for president who was opposed to the death penalty.

Mr. Dukakis' 1988 campaign against President Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, began collapsing after Mr. Dukakis was asked hypothetically in a debate if he'd want the death penalty for a man who raped and murdered his wife.

"I don't see any evidence that it's a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime," responded Mr. Dukakis in a detached manner. "We've done so in my own state."

It's been nearly 25 years since a sitting president was against the death penalty. President Carter generally opposed it, though as governor he signed legislation reinstating Georgia's death penalty.

But today is not 1988, when killings were rampant and crack-cocaine use was peaking in many cities.

"It was much more of a political hot potato in those days," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.

The debate has drifted into calmer waters in recent years because DNA analysis has exonerated some death-row inmates.

Kerry spokesman Chad Clanton said more than 100 such inmates have been cleared through DNA.

Polls, however, still show Americans overwhelmingly support the death penalty, though that support has waned since the 1980s.

"There are 30 % of Americans who are absolutely against the death penalty for any reason," said Josh Noble, coordinator of Students Against the Death Penalty Project, part of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It should not be seen as a radical position."

This year's White House race pits two extremes on this issue against one another. Mr. Bush's home state of Texas has executed more murderers than any other state, while Mr. Kerry's Massachusetts is among only 12 states that still bans the death penalty.

In the early 1990s, before the issue cooled, former President Bill Clinton led the way among many Democrats to compromise on the issue. He supported the death penalty and even returned to his state during the 1992 presidential campaign as governor to oversee the execution of a mildly retarded murderer.

"It was still strongly debated in public, but I think many of the candidates sought to remove themselves from the debate," Mr. Dieter.

Mr. Kerry was not one of those.

When Students Against the Death Penalty rated the 9 candidates seeking the Democratic nomination last fall, it gave only Mr. Kerry and Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich perfect scores.

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