On the subject of the death penalty, The Chicago Weekend reported that on September 18, 1999, Obama made his support for a moratorium on executions clear during a town hall meeting at the Alpha Temple Missionary Baptist Church.
“I was a main sponsor of a bill that would have put an immediate moratorium on the death penalty,” Obama said then. “We need to put more resources into the Public Defender’s office, so they can do things like DNA testing and take other means to make sure you’ve got the right person before you consider the death penalty.”
Jack Ryan’s opposition research also highlights a case that captivated Chicago in November 1999, when several black students were expelled from a Decatur, Ill., high school for fighting. While the school board stood by its decision, Rev. Jesse Jackson led a charge to have the students reinstated. Obama refused to give a position on the case to The State Journal-Register, but he did introduce “legislation against zero-tolerance policies” in the midst of the controversy. Additionally, he appeared alongside Jackson onstage during a rally at the Church of the Living God following Jackson’s arrest for unlawfully leading a mob into the school.
In the waning days of 1999, Illinois Republican Gov. George Ryan was convinced he had enough votes in the Senate to pass his version of a bill called the “Safe Neighborhoods Act,” which “would have kept the unlawful use of weapons a felony but allow the records of first-time offenders to be expunged if they successfully completed probation,” reported the Chicago Defender. But when the bill came up for a vote, state Senator Barack Obama — who had promised his support — was nowhere to be found. An aide later told the press that Obama was stuck at his home in Hawaii tending to a sick daughter.
A Chicago Tribune editorial ripped Obama as a “gutless sheep” for the missed vote. “Some found more important things to do than vote against crime. What gutless sheep,” the editorial read. “Sen. Barack Obama (D-Chicago), who has — had? — aspirations to be a member of Congress, chose a trip to Hawaii over public safety in Illinois.”
Obama was running for a U.S. House seat at the time but the flub “paralyzed his congressional campaign,” says the Ryan document, leading to Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush’s re-election. That loss became the only electoral defeat in Obama’s short political career.
Heading into the year 2000, the Ryan files revisit Obama’s opposition to the death penalty. “Poor folks generally get a raw deal in the criminal justice system,” Obama told a forum audience at the University of Chicago Law School on May 15, 2000, according to the independent student newspaper, The Chicago Maroon.
“The only argument for the death penalty is vengeance and that is a valid emotion. To pretend it doesn’t exist is dishonest. Don’t assume that vengeance is not a part of justice,” Obama went on. “When you place that against the possibility that one innocent person could be put to death, that is daunting. The public opinion is that as long as they catch 99 guilty people, they don’t care if one person gets carried away.”
In 2001 — after a Quad Cities man was found not guilty of “sexually molesting a child because he was too drunk to form criminal intent” — a state Senate panel that included Obama reacted by unanimously voting for a provision that would repeal a defendant’s ability to use intoxication as a legal defense. But Obama, Ryan’s research points out, “tried to weaken the measure” first.
“Committee members suggested alternatives to Jacobs’ proposal before approving the measure, Senate Bill 265, as is,” reported the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. “Sen. Barack Obama, D-Chicago, suggested that the measure only apply to violent crimes or that it should include language to explain that it did not prevent defendants from showing lack of criminal intent because of intoxication.”