President-elect Obama today chose Eric Holder as his pick for U.S. Attorney General. He would become the first African-American to head the Justice Department, according to Newsweek.

In an interview with the New York Times in 1997, Holder separated his personal opposition to the death penalty from his professional responsibilities:

Mr Hatch questioned Mr. Holder about his views on the death penalty in general and in particular about a case in which Mr. Holder initially did not seek the death penalty for someone who was accused of killing a District of Columbia police officer.

”I am not a proponent of the death penalty, but I will enforce the law as this Congress gives it to us,” Mr. Holder said.

Mr. Holder said that at first he had not thought the crime met the legal conditions for the death penalty. But he said he changed his mind after a conversation with Attorney General Janet Reno. ”I hope that the committee would feel very assured that even with those statutes that have death penalty provisions will be fully enforced by me,” he said.

Holder also said in 2000 that he was “personally and professionally disturbed by the [racial] disparity,” which showed that “minorities are overrepresented” on federal death rows.

Janet Reno, Attorney General for 8 years under Bill Clinton, was also personally opposed to the death penalty, although she sought the death penalty in some prosecutions.

In an interview with Jim Leherer, Reno explained her position:

JANET RENO: I was personally opposed to the death penalty, and yet I think I have probably asked for the death penalty more than most people in the United States.

JIM LEHRER: Was that difficult for you to do?

JANET RENO: I had concluded when I was the prosecutor that I would vote against the death penalty if I were in the legislature but that I could ask for it when I was satisfied as to guilt and to the proper application of the penalty.

Given that there is more recognition today about the problems with the death penalty and the risk of executing innocent people, we expect that any attorney general under Obama would support significant reform of the federal death penalty and increased support for states that need federal support for reforms at the state-level, such as increased funding for innocence programs.

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