The Democratic candidates have debated eight times and have held countless town halls and forums, and most questions they are asked are not new.
But on Sunday night, a man who spent 39 years in prison, including time on death row, for a crime he did not commit asked Hillary Clinton if she supports the death penalty. Clinton has struggled with questions about capital punishment in the past, and this was the first time she was presented with the question by a victim of the country’s broken justice system.
Ricky Jackson, who was exonerated in 2014 after serving almost four decades for a murder he did not commit, told her that he came “perilously close” to his own execution.
“In light of that, what I’ve just shared with you, and in light of the fact that there are documented cases of innocent people who have been executed in our country, I would like to know how can you still take your stance on the death penalty?”
Clinton appeared uncomfortable. “This is such a profoundly difficult question,” she said, before going on to detail her position on the death penalty.
“I would breathe a sigh of relief if either the Supreme Court or the states themselves began to eliminate the death penalty,” she said, indicating for the first time that she would support a court ruling eliminating capital punishment.
But her answer did not stop there. Clinton has previously said that she supports the death penalty being used in “limited and rare” cases, and on Sunday she detailed what those cases might look like. She said she would only support the federal death penalty being used for “horrific mass killings” — incidents like the bombing in Oklahoma City which killed 168 people or the terrorist attacks on September 11.
“At this point, given the challenges we face from terrorist activities in our country that primarily end up under federal jurisdiction for very limited purposes, I think it can still be held in reserve for those,” she said.
Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, made his opposition to the death penalty clear on Twitter:
With so much violence already in the world, I just don't think the state itself should be killing people. I'm against capital punishment.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) March 14, 2016
Clinton has a complicated past when it comes to her outlook on criminal justice reform and the death penalty. As a young lawyer in 1976, she helped to save a mentally handicapped black man from execution. But as First Lady, she echoed her husband’s support for tough crime policies and harsher sentencing. During Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, she traveled with him back to Little Rock, Arkansas so that he could personally preside over the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally ill black man.
But her support for capital punishment has waned as public support has also declined. When she ran for the U.S. Senate in 2000, she said that the death penalty had her “unenthusiastic support.”
Jackson was correct when he asserted that there are documented cases of innocent people being executed. There’s no way to know for sure how many of the more than 1,000 people killed since 1976 have been innocent, but there are many documented cases where the person executed had strong evidence of innocence. One major study found that at least 4.1 percent of all defendants sentenced to death in the United States in the modern era are innocent.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told the Guardian when the study was released that “every time we have an execution, there is a risk of executing an innocent person. The risk may be small, but it’s unacceptable.”
The death penalty is also applied in racially biased ways. People of color have accounted for a disproportionate 43 percent of total executions since 1976 and make up 55 percent of people awaiting execution, according to the ACLU. About one half of all murders involve white victims, but 80 percent of capital cases involve white victims.
Though Clinton said she only supports a federal death penalty, experts have said that as long as capital punishment is permitted in the United States, it will be applied more widely than just federal cases. Ben Jealous, the former president of the NAACP who is supporting Sanders, told ThinkProgress last week that capital punishment is “the spawn of lynching in our country.”
“If Hillary Clinton wants us to trust that she will be strong on criminal justice reform, she needs to break with the death penalty,” he said.