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Democratic presidential hopefuls rush to affirm opposition to death penalty after Justice announces plans to resume executions

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), shown here at a forum at the NAACP National Convention in Detroit earlier this week, was among the Democratic presidential contenders to affirm their opposition to the death penalty on Thursday. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

A spate of Democratic White House hopefuls rushed to affirm their opposition to capital punishment Thursday after the Justice Department announced plans to resume executions of federal death-row prisoners, signaling the issue could gain new salience in the 2020 campaign.

President Trump supports the death penalty, and most in the crowded Democratic field have voiced opposition, some more recently than others. Former vice president Joe Biden (D), who is running in 2020, dropped his long-standing support of capital punishment as part of a broader criminal justice proposal released this week.

Other Democratic candidates jockeyed Thursday to highlight their opposition to an order issued by Attorney General William P. Barr to schedule executions of five inmates who are on death row after being convicted of murdering children.

Justice Department plans to restart capital punishment after long hiatus

“Let me be clear: capital punishment is immoral and deeply flawed,” Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), a former California attorney general, said on Twitter. “Too many innocent people have been put to death. We need a national moratorium on the death penalty, not a resurrection.”

Others, including Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee (D) sought to play up their previous advocacy on the issue.

“The death penalty is cruel and unnecessary,” Inslee said in a tweet. “We put an end to it in Washington state, and we’ll abolish it nationwide when I’m president.”

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) emphasized that he had “always opposed the death penalty,” writing on Twitter that “our governments have not been able to get to the truth consistently enough to have the right to take a life.”

Others highlighted racial disparities in the application of capital punishment.

“Our criminal justice system has a long history of mistakes when it comes to capital punishment — especially when it comes to Black and Brown people,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said in a tweet. “We cannot let a broken system decide the fate of incarcerated Americans. I oppose the death penalty.”

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) struck a similar chord, writing on Twitter that “our criminal justice system is broken and the death penalty is blatantly prejudiced and unevenly applied.”

“We know innocent people have been executed by the state for crimes they didn’t commit. That should never happen in this country,” he added.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) cast his opposition to the death penalty in sweeping terms.

“There’s enough violence in the world,” he tweeted. “The government shouldn’t add to it. When I am president, we will abolish the death penalty.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said in a statement that she has opposed the death penalty since her time as a county prosecutor.

“It does not reduce crime, it is costly and it is discriminatory,” she said. “A life sentence compared to a death penalty sentence depends on where you live, who your lawyer is and the color of your skin. That’s not right.”

Miramar, Fla., Mayor Wayne Messam (D) said on Twitter that Thursday’s announcement by the Justice Department was “yet another Trump distraction” as he advocated halting executions.

Former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.), meanwhile, offered the most succinct message on Twitter: “Abolish the death penalty.”

The last federal execution was in 2003. In the years since, there has been an informal moratorium on executions of federal prisoners, as Justice Department officials reviewed its lethal injection procedures.

Asked how involved Trump was with the policy change, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters, “The president is always fully informed as to what the public policy debates are in and around his Cabinet.”

She added that Trump would like to see “stiffer penalties for high-level drug traffickers.”

Devlin Barrett and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.