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1985 Ronald Reagan - Advocating for the Death Penalty

President Ronald Reagan was a strong advocate of the death penalty as demonstrated early on during his first term as California’s governor when he refused to grant clemency to a man on death row in 1967.   Mr. Reagan believed that the death penalty was not only a deterrent of crime, but also the overwhelming will of the people.  In his 1985, State of the Union Address, he urged Congress to push for laws that would use the death penalty where necessary.   In 1986, he named William H. Rehnquist as the Chief Justice of Supreme Court who continued to advocate for the removal of barriers blocking states from carry out the death penalty and thus accelerated the pace of executions.  In 1980, there were zero executions compared to the peak year of 1999 when there were 98 executions.   In this post, I explore President Reagan's thoughts on the death penalty from 1967 until 1985.

In 1963, Arnold Gamble was given the death sentence for murdering a police officer in Sacramento.   Governor Ronald Reagan refused clemency to Mitchell and in 1967, Gamble became the only person to be executed during the governorship of Ronald Reagan.  The execution was not without controversy.  On the way to the gas chamber, Mitchell began slashing his forearm with a jagged piece of metal, shouting that he was the second coming of Jesus Christ.   Throughout the night, Mitchell continued his rants and just before his death in the chamber, he shouted one last time that he was Jesus Christ.  Prison psychiatrists who examined Mitchell in the morning determined that he was just putting on an act to delay his death and declared him sane and fit for execution.  Governor Reagan took much criticism for refusing grant clemency, and these events continued influenced public opinion in California against capital punishment.  Nevertheless, Mr. Reagan remained steadfast and even claimed there would be more of them to come.   As governor, there was no question where Reagan stood on capital punishment.   In a historic 1967 handwritten letter, he wrote boldly and directly that "the people of Calif. had made a decision that capital punishment is a deterrent and is to be enforced.  Only the people and change that law".

It wasn't the people who changed the law, it was the Supreme Court of California and the United States.  On June 29, 1972, the California Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the same just a few months later.    In Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court set the standard that the death penalty would be "cruel and unusual" if it could be deemed too severe for the crime.  The Supreme Court ruled that Georgia's death penalty statue, which gave the jury full discretion in sentencing was arbitrary and violated the Eight Amendment.   With the ruling, the Supreme Court knocked down forty state death penalty statutes and thereby commuted the sentences of 62 inmates on death row.  Technically, the court ruling did not abolish the death penalty, but because the existing state statues were no longer valid, it stood as a temporary abolition of the death penalty. 

Mr. Reagan remained governor until 1975, and despite his promise there would be more death penalties, none were delivered.  Furthermore, during the years between being governor and becoming president, there were only 3 executions nationwide.   Despite this, President Reagan remained convinced that capital punishment was not only a deterrent to crime, but the will of the people.  During his first term, he used the presidency as a bully pulpit to push for the revival of the Death Penalty.   Reagan's stance on the death penalty had not changed, and he used many occasion’s to make this known as he pushed for stronger crime bills. 

In 1981, at the annual meeting of International Association of Chiefs of Police in New Orleans, Mr. Reagan explained shared his experiences with person's convicted of murder who were imprisoned, paroled and then released only to murder again. 
"Again, let me point to something that I hadn't included in my remarks but I am reminded of—the whole problem of capital punishment. Well, I had an answer to that on my desk for several years while I was Governor. It was a list of the names of 12 criminals, 12 murderers, who had all been sentenced to prison, who had all served their terms or been paroled, and released. And at the time the list was on my desk, their total number of victims then was 34, not 12. I think capital punishment in the beginning might have reduced that figure considerably."
In 1982, speaking to a group of students at St. Peter's Catholic Elementary School in Illinois, the president shared his views on gun control and the death penalty.   He explained how in California strict penalties proved to be a bigger deterrent to gun violence than strict gun control laws.  He even shared some history about why English police did not have to carry guns. 
"So, as I say, I think the penalties—and one last thing I'll add to that. Years ago in England—England was always very proud of the fact that the English police did not have to carry guns. And the reason they didn't have to carry guns—and this sounds very cruel, and I'm not recommending this, but I just point out what that kind of a threat can do. In England, if a criminal carried a gun, even though he didn't use it, he was not tried for burglary or theft or whatever he was doing, he was tried for first-degree murder and hung if he was found guilty. They said that the fact that he carried the gun meant that he had premeditated using the gun to kill someone if necessary. And so the criminal stopped carrying guns, and the police didn't have to carry guns, and it all worked out very well until they eliminated capital punishment and changed things."
In 1984, in Connecticut at annual conference of the National Sheriff's Association, Mr. Reagan asked the Sheriff’s and all those in attendance to push their elected representatives for the reinstitution of capital punishment. 
"Americans overwhelmingly favor changes in the exclusionary rule, the insanity defense, the reinstitution of capital punishment, and the tightening up of parole and bail procedures. And of all places the people's voice deserves to be heard, it is in the House of Representatives. So, today I'm asking you to continue to use your influence with your elected representatives. Let them know that you're tired of waiting and that, at a very minimum, the liberal leadership in the House owes the American people a floor debate and vote out in the open on this crime package."
Again in 1984, Mr. Reagan gave remarks at an American Legion Auxiliary event, questioned the fairness of using the death penalty and asking where the compassion for the victims of crime is. 
"Where's the compassion in forgetting the victims of crime? What is fair about holding up urgently needed reform of our bail and parole systems, about refusing to revise the exclusionary rule or reinstitute the death penalty? The Senate has adopted a significant package of these very anticrime measures. Now it's time for the House to act." 
And finally, in his 1985 State of the Union, President Ronald Reagan urged the United States House of Congress to follow in the footsteps of the Senate and pass new legislation through the committees that would strengthen crime prevention and "in keeping with the will of the overwhelming majority of Americans, the use of the death penalty where necessary."
"But we must do more. I urge the House to follow the Senate and enact proposals permitting use of all reliable evidence that police officers acquire in good faith. These proposals would also reform the habeas corpus laws and allow, in keeping with the will of the overwhelming majority of Americans, the use of the death penalty where necessary."


Presidency.ucsb.edu. (2019). Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union | The American Presidency Project. [online] Available at: https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/address-before-joint-session-the-congress-the-state-the-union-5 [Accessed 11 Jun. 2019].

Presidency.ucsb.edu. (2019). Question-and-Answer Session With Students at St. Peter's Catholic Elementary School in Geneva, Illinois | The American Presidency Project. [online] Available at: https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/question-and-answer-session-with-students-st-peters-catholic-elementary-school-geneva [Accessed 11 Jun. 2019].

Presidency.ucsb.edu. (2019). Remarks at an Event Sponsored by the American Legion Auxiliary | The American Presidency Project. [online] Available at: https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/remarks-event-sponsored-the-american-legion-auxiliary [Accessed 11 Jun. 2019].

Presidency.ucsb.edu. (2019). Remarks at the Annual Conference of the National Sheriff's Association in Hartford, Connecticut | The American Presidency Project. [online] Available at: https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/remarks-the-annual-conference-the-national-sheriffs-association-hartford-connecticut [Accessed 11 Jun. 2019].

Presidency.ucsb.edu. (2019). Remarks in New Orleans, Louisiana, at the Annual Meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police | The American Presidency Project. [online] Available at: https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/remarks-new-orleans-louisiana-the-annual-meeting-the-international-association-chiefs [Accessed 11 Jun. 2019].

Findlaw. (2019). Temporary Abolition of the Death Penalty - FindLaw. [online] Available at: https://criminal.findlaw.com/criminal-procedure/temporary-abolition-of-the-death-penalty.html [Accessed 11 Jun. 2019].

Latimes.com. (2019). Los Angeles Times - Page unavailable in your region. [online] Available at: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1985-08-23-mn-24365-story.html [Accessed 11 Jun. 2019].

Loriferber.com. (2019). Ronald Reagan Hand Signed Letter on Capital Punishment. [online] Available at: https://www.loriferber.com/ronald-reagan-capital-punishment-signed-letter.html [Accessed 11 Jun. 2019].

Loriferber.com. (2019). Ronald Reagan Hand Signed Letter on Capital Punishment. [online] Available at: https://www.loriferber.com/ronald-reagan-capital-punishment-signed-letter.html [Accessed 11 Jun. 2019].

1 comment:

  1. I know the criminals that manufactured narcotics imported narcotics recieved narcotics sold narcotics carried guns making president ronald reagan complicit in each and every crime related to the importation of narcotics.very easy falls under the rico act. Under his own beliefs should carry the death penalty.
    hypocrisy at its most vulgar state i think history has to be remembered at it's rawest truth no matter how much it cuts.we must not negate the fact how acute and racially condemning this war on drugs was.