The Time Bill Clinton and I Killed a Man

If familiarity breeds social change, maybe Americans have seen enough of capital punishment.

The 'death chamber' at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Huntsville Unit in Huntsville, Texas, February 29, 2000.  (National Journal)

Strapped to a gurney, two body lengths from where I sat behind thick glass and a curtain, Ricky Ray Rector groaned each time his executioner jabbed a lethal needle into his beefy arm. Once. Twice. Again and again and again—for 20 minutes, the cop-killer whimpered before I watched him die.

Earlier that day, January 24, 1992, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton had left the presidential campaign trail to be home for Rector's execution. State law did not require the governor's presence, but politics did: Clinton wanted to raise his national profile and reverse the Democratic Party's soft-on-crime image.

I just wanted to avoid throwing up in the witness room.

I walked into that room a death-penalty supporter, the son of a Detroit police officer who had no sympathy for Rector. This monster had shot up a restaurant over a $3 cover charge, wounding two and killing one. After luring police officer Robert Martin into a trap and killing him, Rector shot himself in the head.

Eleven years later, it was unclear whether the lobotomized and obese Rector understood why the needle was being jabbed into his arm. His executioner couldn't find a vein.

My support of capital punishment died with Rector. While I had no remorse for him (still don't), what converted me was a sudden intimacy with state-sponsored killing. More than time and politics, the best catalyst for social change is familiarity.

I think that explains the rapid shift in favor of gay rights: As people came to know neighbors, friends, family members, and (in a different sense) celebrities who happened to be gay, sexual orientation seemed less of a mystery and therefore less threatening. Same-sex marriage? Love is love.

On the death penalty, a growing number of Americans are telling pollsters and politicians they've seen enough. Killing inmates is more expensive than housing them for life. The judicial system is unfair and imperfect, which means people are convicted of crimes they didn't commit. Life is sacred—period.

As NBC's First Read noted today, the debate just shifted against capital punishment.

Maybe the most significant political story in the country over the past 24 hours didn't take place in Washington, DC, or on the 2016 campaign trail. Instead, it's what happened yesterday in Nebraska, which repealed the death penalty in the state after Republican and Democratic lawmakers overrode—barely—the GOP governor's veto. "In the most suspenseful decision to play out in Nebraska's one-house Legislature in years, lawmakers voted 30-19 to override Gov. Pete Ricketts' veto of Legislative Bill 268. Without a vote to spare, the override replaced lethal injection with life in prison," the Omaha World-Herald notes. This is a big deal for three reasons. One, Nebraska becomes the first red state in the country to repeal the death penalty in 40 years (after North Dakota did it in 1973). Two, it comes after at least one national poll (Pew) had found a drop in support of the death penalty. (If you don't think that public opinion on a social issue can change in a hurry, just look at gay marriage.) And three, it comes in the midst of a bipartisan effort—even among Dem and GOP 2016ers—to overhaul the nation's criminal-justice system.   

The '80s and '90s vs. now: Indeed, just compare the 1980s/1990s with now. Back in the '80s and '90s, the conversation was limited to "three strikes and you're out," stiff drug penalties, and the death penalty. Bill Clinton, in fact, used his support of the death penalty to prove his tough-on-crime credentials in 1992.  But now? We're seeing a backlash to that era. For all the divide that we highlight on cultural issues in this country, which usually gets amplified by partisan media, this shift on crime and punishment is even more remarkable. Is there a single moment that triggered this change in the American psyche? Hard to find one but between DNA testing raising doubts about some convictions, which sparked the initial public questioning of the death penalty (see Illinois and George Ryan) to the fact that crime didn't rise but dropped during the last recession, there is simply a sea change in how society views these issues. And as for the implementation of the death penalty, as more doubts are raised about whether lethal injection is humane, and it's possible we are less than a generation away from the death penalty becoming nearly obsolete. As we noted above, cultural shifts on issues happen much faster in today's world.

For many Americans, the death penalty is no longer an antiseptic tool of retribution carried out by trusted government officials. It's something they've lived with for years: Death's bureaucracy, exploited by opportunistic politicians and mismanaged by a sorry judicial system.

Familiarity is breeding reassessment—if not outright revulsion, like what I felt while watching Bill Clinton and the good people of Arkansas (including me) kill a man.