Almost a year ago, after the massacre of nine black parishioners at a Charleston, South Carolina, church known as Mother Emanuel, relatives of the victims did something incredible: They forgave the man accused of murdering their loved ones.
It was an act of Christian compassion so powerful that one presidential candidate drew inspiration from it for months.
"One by one, grieving parents and siblings stood up in court and looked at the young man who had taken so much from them and said, 'I forgive you,'" Hillary Clinton said just weeks after the massacre. "Their act of mercy was more stunning than his act of cruelty."
In March of this year, when a Donald Trump rally in Chicago was canceled because of fears of violence between Trump supporters and protesters, Clinton once again invoked the Charleston families.
“The families of those victims came together and melted hearts in the statehouse and the Confederate flag came down,” she said in a written statement. “That should be the model we strive for to overcome painful divisions in our country.”
Clinton featured the Charleston families in ads and referenced them in debates and speeches about gun safety, emphasizing their bravery and compassion.
Last week the Justice Department announced that it would seek the death penalty for Dylann Roof, the accused Charleston gunman. Immediately, a debate over capital punishment took shape. An attorney for the Charleston families told the press that they had "mixed emotions about the death penalty" but would support the decision.
Clinton's opponent for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders, came out against the Justice Department's decision. A spokesman wrote that Sanders believes that "those who are convicted of the most horrible crimes should be imprisoned for the rest of their lives without the possibility of parole.”
The renowned author and public intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote: "killing Roof does absolutely nothing to ameliorate the conditions that brought him into being in the first place. The hammer of criminal justice is the preferred tool of a society that has run out of ideas. In this sense, Roof is little more than a human sacrifice to The Gods of Doing Nothing."
Hillary Clinton has remained silent on the decision.
Hillary Clinton and the death penalty
Clinton clarified her position on capital punishment at a CNN Democratic town hall in March. She was asked about the subject by a man who had spent 39 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. She responded:
“You know, this is such a profoundly difficult question, and what I have said—and what I continue to believe—is that the states have proven themselves incapable of carrying out fair trials that give any defendant all of the rights a defendant should have, all of the support that the defendant’s lawyer should have. And I have said I would breathe a sigh of relief if either the Supreme Court or the states, themselves, began to eliminate the death penalty. Where I end up is this—and maybe it’s a distinction that is hard to support—but at this point, given the challenges we face from terrorist activities, primarily in our country, that end up under federal jurisdiction, for very limited purposes I think that it can still be held in reserve for those.”
That position, which would put her to the right of many Democratic voters, was still regarded by some as an evolution from her previous position of strong support for it. Both Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have often been seen as stalwart supporters of the death penalty. But the truth is far more complicated.
As a young lawyer teaching at the University of Arkansas law school, Clinton worked alongside legal advocates who opposed capital punishment. In 1976, she filed a brief for a man named Henry Giles who had an intellectual disability, had been convicted of murder, and was headed for the electric chair. His life was eventually spared, thanks in part to the work Clinton did on his behalf. Some reports say that around that time, Bill Clinton, already married to Hillary Clinton and working with her at the law school, had told contemporaries at the school that he was against the death penalty.
Much has been made of the Clintons' "tough on crime" stance during the 1980s and ’90s. But as governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton commuted the sentences of as many as 38 people people convicted of murder—one of whom, James Surridge, later killed again. In 1980, he was drummed out of office after just one term, in part because of the public outcry over Surridge's case.
By 1982, when Clinton was elected governor again, he had become a strong advocate for capital punishment. Running for president in 1992, he famously left the campaign trail to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, an Arkansas man who was so mentally unsound that he asked that the dessert at his last meal be saved for later.
Hillary Clinton stood by her husband during the Rector case and supported his crime policies. The infamous 1994 crime bill that Hillary Clinton advocated on behalf of her husband expanded the number of criminal cases in which the death penalty could be sought.
By January 2001, Bill Clinton, with no elections left to win, was back to commuting sentences, sparing the life of Juan Raul Garza, a drug trafficker who had been sentenced to death for murder. But Hillary Clinton's career as an elected official was just beginning. During her 2000 campaign for Senate, she described herself as an "unenthusiastic supporter" of the death penalty.
The will without a way
Hillary Clinton, whose campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story, now finds herself in a different political landscape.
Support for the death penalty has declined steadily since its peak in the mid-’90s, and criminal justice reform has emerged as a major platform plank in Democratic politics. Even Clinton's qualified support of the death penalty is outside the mainstream: 56 percent of her party opposes the death penalty, full stop.
Yet she is currently in the process of pivoting to a general election against a man who once took out full-page newspaper ads urging New York to bring back the death penalty to execute five teenage boys who history would prove had done nothing wrong.
And while public opinion has changed dramatically, especially on the left, it is still Barack Obama's Justice Department that has sought the death penalty in high-profile cases like those of Roof and of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, convicted in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
Given the length of the appeals process, it's possible neither of these men will be put to death until after the next president has already served one or two terms in office. Still, the next president of the United States will eventually have to give their position on whether or not either of those men deserve to die. Clinton has already indicated that she believes the death penalty may be appropriate in Tsarnaev's case.
And one other critical question about their deaths may need answering in the near future: Just how does the state plan to execute them?
The availability of lethal injection drugs has dramatically declined over the past several years. Companies like Pfizer have moved to ensure that their drugs will not be used in executions. Alternatives to injection are generally thought to be too barbaric. In 2008, the Supreme Court banned the use of the electric chair on the grounds that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
Recently states like Nebraska have brazenly attempted to obtain execution drugs by importing them illegally from India. States that have experimented with alternative drug protocols have come under increased scrutiny after the botched execution of Oklahoma death row inmate Clayton Lockett in 2014.
In other words, lethal injection is becoming increasingly untenable as a means of carrying out capital punishment. If Hillary Clinton becomes president and decides she wants to continue to pursue the death penalty case against Roof, she will have to figure out how.
Or she could just not allow the federal government to kill anyone. There's always that.