In 1975, Ricky Jackson, then just 18 years old, was wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to die in Ohio’s electric chair. He languished in prison for more than 39 years until, in 2014, he was exonerated and set free, earning the dubious honor of serving more time in prison than any other exoneree in US history.
At a town hall event in Columbus on Sunday night, Jackson had the chance to share his story with Hillary Clinton—and ask for an answer. “I came perilously close to my own execution,” he told Clinton, pausing to choke back tears. “In light of what I 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 you can still take your stance on the death penalty in light of what you know right now?”
For an election season that has been punctuated by the newest bipartisan buzz phrase—“criminal justice reform”—yet has featured almost no discussion of the death penalty, this moment was both electric and long overdue. “The audience was quiet and could hear pin drop, they were mesmerized,” Mark Godsey, director of the Ohio Innocence Project, told Cleveland’s Plain Dealer. When Clinton responded to Jackson by repeating her support for the death penalty, albeit a “very limited use of it,” the exchange crystallized into something more than interesting or noteworthy. It became iconic: one of those rare election moments that endures long after the last votes have been counted. Tweets poured in, followed by articles, and for an all-too-brief moment, the fact that the United States continues to engage in state-sponsored killings—and that hundreds of innocent Americans have been sentenced to die—was the subject of serious campaign conversation.
Only nine nations continue to execute their citizens on a regular basis. We in the United States find ourselves in a sorry club—aligned with the likes of North Korea, Iran, China, and Sudan. Bernie Sanders—the only current candidate on either side who is opposed to capital punishment—likes to regularly call attention to our embarrassing singularities, such as our unique refusal to provide paid childcare leave or our idiosyncratic healthcare costs. But almost no meaningful political conversation in the election thus far has been dedicated to the United States’ other unique predilection: state-sponsored killings.
In 2014, the United States executed 35 people. Perhaps this relatively small number is the reason that capital punishment has been a mere footnote in this election season. Does it begin to feel more significant when you realize that this statistic sandwiches us between Iraq and Sudan for the most confirmed state executions in 2014? What about the fact that 34.6 percent of executed Americans are black, despite representing only 13.2 percent of the general US population? Does it begin to make more sense when you learn that 94.5 percent of prosecutors in death penalty states are white? Does it worry you that, since the death penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1976, for every 10 people executed one has been found innocent and set free? If you knew that a plane you were boarding had a one in 10 chance of spontaneously combusting midflight, you probably wouldn’t get on.