While President Donald Trump’s call to impose the death penalty in severe drug trafficking cases has reignited the national debate over capital punishment, local legal experts are skeptical.
As part of a plan to address the opioid epidemic — announced Monday in a speech in New Hampshire — the president proposed that penalties for drug traffickers be toughened, especially when they cause deaths.
“This isn’t about nice anymore,” Trump said. “This is about winning a very, very tough problem, and if we don’t get very tough on these dealers, it’s not going to happen folks. I want to win this battle.”
Opioids have killed tens of thousands of people across the country in recent years and are a significant problem in Clatsop County and across Oregon. But local attorneys pointed to legal and strategic flaws with the president’s idea.
Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis has prosecuted four death penalty cases, testified in its favor before Congress and written extensively about the subject. But he said the scope of the death penalty nationally — applied in about 1 out of every 500 murder cases — is clear and fair.
“That’s appropriate. It should be that way,” he said.
Marquis said seeking the death penalty for drug traffickers would “cheapen” the punishment, and he doubts its constitutionality.
“If we could directly prove that a drug dealer actually killed people, maybe it could fly. It’s going to be very, very hard to prove that,” Marquis said. “You have to be able to say with a straight face that this is a penalty that is rarely sought.”
Macon Benoit, an Astoria criminal defense attorney, also opposes Trump’s idea. He agrees with Marquis that the legal basis will be difficult to prove.
“I personally think it’s a stupid, stupid idea,” Benoit said.
Oregon has the death penalty but has not executed a convict since 1997. Gov. Kate Brown agreed to continue a state moratorium on capital punishment announced by Gov. John Kitzhaber in 2011.
“It might get some traction given our current political climate,” Benoit said of Trump’s idea, “but I don’t see it ever becoming an issue here.”
The idea was likely not properly thought through before Trump’s speech, Marquis said. “To be blunt, I think it’s a publicity stunt.”