In late November, the Governor of Oregon announced that his state will not conduct any executions for the remainder of his term in office. Gov. John Kitzhaber implemented this moratorium while granting temporary reprieve to an inmate originally scheduled to receive the ultimate punishment on December 6th.
Governor Kitzhaber made his announcement against the backdrop of a national debate over the death penalty, a debate that seems to resurface every year. This year, Georgia’s execution of Troy Davis amid witness recantations and claims of questionable evidence inspired hundreds of protests and rallies worldwide. Texas, always seemingly at the forefront of any death penalty debate, created headlines twice this year with the execution of Mexican citizen (and convicted rapist and murderer) Humberto Leal Garcia, as well as US Supreme Court intervention in the death sentencing of Duane Buck, whose trial featured racially-tainted testimony by the prosecution’s psychologist.
Oregon has largely been outside of these national debates, as it has only executed two people in the last 50 years. Indeed, Oregonians have repealed and reinstated the death penalty statute three separate times since 1864, with the latest incarnation (in 1984) requiring a death row inmate to waive all right to appeal and effectively volunteer to receive the death penalty. Yet faced with the order to execute Gary Haugen last month, Gov. Kitzhaber decided that he would no longer support the practice, not even at a ratio of one state-sponsored death every 25 years.
In making his decision, the governor cited some of the other states that have abolished the death penalty, including New Jersey and New Mexico. He also cited the expense and inefficiency associated with the nation’s death rows compared to general prison populations. But mostly, he cites the inequality of Oregon’s capital punishment laws, in impactful moral terms. This, from his statement printed in The Oregonian:
Oregonians have a fundamental belief in fairness and justice – in swift and certain justice. The death penalty as practiced in Oregon is neither fair nor just; and it is not swift or certain. It is not applied equally to all. It is a perversion of justice that the single best indicator of who will and will not be executed has nothing to do with the circumstances of a crime or the findings of a jury.
The only factor that determines whether someone sentenced to death in Oregon is actually executed is that they volunteer. The hard truth is that in the 27 years since Oregonians reinstated the death penalty, it has only been carried out on two volunteers who waived their rights to appeal.
In the years since those executions, many judges, district attorneys, legislators, death penalty proponents and opponents, and victims and their families have agreed that Oregon’s system is broken.
He goes on to describe the shifting scope of the death penalty debate in the Supreme Court and in other states, and then declares this:
It is time for Oregon to consider a different approach. I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer; and I will not allow further executions while I am Governor. I do not make this decision lightly.
Gov. Kitzhaber’s approach is unorthodox, if not unique. He raises important points concerning the viability of the death penalty, not just in Oregon, but in all states where it is legal. He has added another voice to the national dialogue concerning this practice, and in our opinion, he has made an appropriate, good, and moral stand for the citizens of Oregon.