The Trumpstad Report: Death Penalty for Juveniles

Trump hair: Lorie Shaull/Noun Project, mustache: Aldric Rodríguez Iborra/Noun Project

Part of a series on the ties that bind Iowa’s governor and the GOP presidential nominee.

Donald Trump made a blunt appeal to African American voters last Friday in Dimondale, Michigan, claiming the Democratic Party had failed them. “You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed,” he said (citing a misleading statistic). “What the hell do you have to lose?”

Whatever the answer, it’s clear Trump didn’t have much to lose, with polls showing he has the support of just 2 percent of black voters. He likely only deepened his hole with a pitch the following Monday in Tampa, telling them that under a Trump presidency, “You’ll be able to walk down the street without getting shot. Right now you walk down the street, you get shot. Look at the statistics — we’ll straighten it out.”

Trump’s fractured relationship with African Americans dates back long before he was attracting white supremacists to campaign rallies. The first time his name appeared in the New York Times was in 1973, as the Informer has previously mentioned, when tenants of the real estate magnate accused him of racial bias. He’s allegedly made racist remarks behind closed doors such as “laziness is a trait in blacks” and racially discriminated against his employees, and suggested President Obama is foreign-born and wouldn’t have gotten into Harvard Law if not for affirmative action.

One of Trump’s most notorious moments came in 1989, when he took out full-page ads in major New York newspapers calling for the execution of one Latino and four black teens — none older than 16 — after four of them falsely confessed under police coercion to the brutal assault and rape of a woman jogging in Central Park. The ads ran two weeks after the attack, before any trials and while the victim, a 28-year-old investment banker who was white, remained in a coma, critically injured.

Trump's 1989 newspaper ad. Image: New York Daily News via the Guardian
Trump’s 1989 newspaper ad. Image: New York Daily News via the Guardian

“BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!” the headline screamed, above six paragraphs of text that would inflame racial tensions in the city. “What has happened to the respect for authority,” Trump wrote, “the fear of retribution by the courts, society and the police for those who break the law, who wantonly trespass on the rights of others? What has happened is the complete breakdown of life as we knew it.” He also criticized “every petty criminal” for their “constant chant of ‘police brutality’” and concluded, “CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!”

In Iowa, Gov. Terry Branstad, too, once supported the execution of minors as young as 16 using racially loaded words. Appearing on the Iowa Public Television program Iowa Press in 1991, according to a report in the Des Moines Register that same year, Branstad argued the extreme measure was necessary to push back against the rise of gang violence. His proposal came as Des Moines police warned state lawmakers that gang members were flocking to Iowa from around the Midwest because of the state’s lax penalties against crack cocaine. This happened against the backdrop of Drug War hysteria and a federal law passed five years prior establishing the same mandatory minimum sentences for those found in possession of one gram of crack as those holding 100 grams of powder cocaine — a law that was reformed, to an extent, in 2010 after years of clear evidence that it discriminated against blacks.

A newspaper clipping from the Nov. 9, 1991, edition of the Des Moines Register
A newspaper clipping from the Nov. 9, 1991, edition of the Des Moines Register

“We have to take action to show that juvenile delinquents that are committing adult crimes are going to be treated as criminals — that they are not going to be coddled,” Branstad said on the program. “They are not going to be turned loose on the street to kill more people or injure more people.”

Although the Supreme Court abolished capital punishment for juveniles in 2005, Branstad has continued to voice his support for the limited application of the death penalty for adults, for instance in cases where the perp rapes and then kills a victim — despite limited evidence that it serves as a deterrent to violent crime and the near certainty that an innocent man was executed in Texas when Branstad’s political ally (and fellow Trump supporter) Rick Perry served as governor.

As recently as 2014, 12 years after the real perpetrator in the Central Park assault confessed, Trump remained unrepentant, penning a column in one of the same papers his ad had appeared in arguing that a $40 million settlement given to the so-called Central Park Five was a “disgrace” despite DNA evidence proving their innocence.

Branstad’s office did not respond to our requests for comment about Trump’s targeting of the innocent teens, the governor’s own past support for executing 16-year-old gang members, whether he would still support executing minors if not for the 2005 Supreme Court ruling, his thoughts about racial disparities in capital punishment, or if the above-mentioned case in Texas gave him pause about the death penalty, which was abolished in Iowa by Gov. Harold Hughes in 1965.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.