"It seems to me at a time of rampant violence and murder … it is important that the state itself … say loud and clearly that we will not be a part of that process," Sanders said during a speech in which he also recounted a plan unveiled Wednesday on the campaign trail to nix marijuana from the federal government's list of outlawed drugs.
That move -- which Sanders said would free states to regulate marijuana as they see fit -- also sets him apart from the former secretary of state, who has advocated a more cautious approach on the issue.
Sanders's decision to highlight the death penalty came a day after Clinton said in New Hampshire that she does not support abolition of the death penalty, arguing that “there are certain egregious cases that still deserve consideration.”
Clinton, however, said the use of capital punishment should be “very limited and rare,” and that “we have to be smarter and more careful about how we do it.” Her comments came in response to a question by an audience member at a “Politics & Eggs” forum at St. Anselm College in Manchester.
Over the past week, Sanders's campaign has ramped up its efforts to highlight issues on which he and Clinton disagree or on which he took a more progressive position sooner than she did. Those have included trade, Wall Street regulation and gay rights.
Although a majority of Americans continue to support use of the death penalty, the level of support has been declining, and a solid majority of Democrats now oppose it, according to a Pew Research Center survey in March.
Among the broader population, 56 percent voiced support for the death penalty, while 38 percent opposed it. Among Democrats, only 40 percent voiced support, while 56 percent said they opposed the death penalty.
The politics surround the issue has changed markedly in recent election cycles. In the past, Democrats who opposed capital punishment were often branded soft on crime. Back in 1996, Democrats favored capital punishment by a wide margin, 71 percent to 25 percent, according to Pew.
In the 2016 Democratic race, both Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley have now talked up their desire to put an end to the death penalty.
As governor, O’Malley championed legislation in 2013 that abolished capital punishment in Maryland. Before leaving office early this year, he also commuted the sentences of the state’s four remaining inmates on the death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In his speech Thursday, Sanders stressed that the government should not go easy on murderers -- just not kill them.
"When people commit horrendous crimes, and we see too many of them, we should lock them up and throw away the key," Sanders said.