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Running for fifth term, Feinstein now says capital punishment is unfair and ineffective

Running for fifth term, Feinstein now says capital punishment is unfair and ineffective
Sen. Dianne Feinstein faces reelection in November in a state that has become increasingly progressive. (Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Dianne Feinstein says she now opposes the death penalty, a surprising reversal from her long-standing support for capital punishment — a stance that helped catapult her to the U.S. Senate 25 years ago.

"Several years ago I changed my view of the death penalty. It became crystal clear to me that the risk of unequal application is high and its effect on deterrence is low," she said in a statement to The Times.

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The shift is the latest example of Feinstein — who built her career as a moderate Democrat — embracing more liberal positions as she faces reelection in November in a state that has become increasingly progressive.

Her staff said the change of heart on capital punishment went largely unnoticed because Feinstein was rarely asked about it. They could not pinpoint exactly when the shift occurred.

Numerous media reports, including some in the last year, have continued to mention Feinstein's support for the death penalty. Her office acknowledged that it never sought to correct the record.

When constituents specifically asked her office for her position on the death penalty, they received a letter detailing the new stance, a spokesman said.

"It has now become clear to me that the death penalty is being applied inconsistently," the letter states. "There is more and more evidence that innocent people have been put to death and that the death penalty is applied arbitrarily or discriminatorily on the basis of race, gender, and geography."

She also discussed her new position with California Democratic Party delegates in a February conference call.

In many ways, her support for the death penalty was pivotal to Feinstein's initial bid for higher office. When Feinstein ran for governor in 1990 — a time of higher crime and more Republican voters in California — she used her support of capital punishment to draw a distinction between herself and the Democratic Party base, which at that time was more left-leaning than the overall state population.

"Yes, I support the death penalty. It is an issue that cannot be fudged or hedged," Feinstein said then in her address to delegates. It prompted a wave of boos and cost her the party endorsement.

She used footage of the speech in campaign ads to showcase her moderate views and appeal to liberal Republicans. And it became a key part of her stump speech.

In 1996, Feinstein was the only Democrat to co-sponsor the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which among other things limited how many times a death-penalty sentence can be appealed. It passed by a 91-8 vote.

In 2004, Feinstein put then-San Francisco Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris on the spot by calling for the death penalty for the killer of San Francisco Police Officer Isaac Espinoza during a speech at his funeral, which both women attended.

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Harris, an opponent of capital punishment who is now Feinstein's colleague in the Senate, had declined to seek the death penalty. Feinstein described the killing as "the special circumstance called for by the death penalty law" and said at the time that she wouldn't have endorsed Harris if she'd known Harris opposed the death penalty.

In 2013, Feinstein said the prosecution of a man accused of the Boston Marathon bombing "should likely be a death penalty case under federal law."

A 2016 UC Berkeley Field Poll found that backing for the death penalty among California voters remained essentially static at 45% support since 2009. The share of voters undecided on the issue dropped, with 55% of voters saying they prefer life without parole as a punishment.

The campaign of Feinstein's most prominent primary opponent, state Sen. Kevin de León, said the shift was just another way the senator has been forced to change her position after De León entered the race on her left last fall.

"There's no question that Dianne Feinstein has evolved on this issue, but this latest flip on the death penalty is yet another appeal to California voters who have outgrown her centrist bent. That being said, we are glad her views are coming more in line with California voters, but the timeline here makes us wonder how long this change of heart will last," campaign spokesman Jonathan Underland said.

Follow @sarahdwire on Twitter

UPDATES:

12:30 p.m.: This article has been updated with response from Kevin de León's campaign.

It was originally published at 3:05 a.m.

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