The 1000th Execution

By Rep. Chip Shields (D-NE Portland).

Now that the United States has reached its 1000th execution, it's time for us to take a hard look at whether or not we want our government executing people in our name.

I believe that the death penalty is unecessary and that mandatory life imprisonment with no chance of parole, plus restitution paid to the victims' heirs is a much better way to go. What do you think?

Also, there is good discussion going on the death penalty at

Locally, you can get involved in replacing the death penalty with true life sentences at the Western Prison Project.


  • (Show?)

    I had some thoughts on this today that I posted on Hog. You can read them here and here.

  • Jesse O (unverified)

    I used to be adamantly anti-death penalty.

    After looking at more recent studies of murderers that show some are physically incapable of determining right from wrong, and therefore have no ability to be reformed, but will continually be a threat to humanity, I'm not so sure. Why do we have a moral obligation to keep these folks alive?

    And yes, I want a death penalty that ensures we get the right person -- not like the past. Perhaps that's impossible.

    So put me down as "I want the death penalty to be legal, safe and rare." Perhaps so rare that it's never used.

  • Andrew Tunall (unverified)

    I am the exact opposite ... I used to be adamantaly pro-Death Penalty.

    The Supreme Court, in weighing the validity of the death penalty, has repeatedly looked at the standards of deterrance and punishment in deciding whether or not it was valid.

    While I have no statistics to back it up, my inkling is that nobody who would otherwise kill a person is going to stop and set their weapon down, thinking about the fact that they might receive the death penalty. At the point in which there is no deterrent aspect, the only thing left is to decide which punishment is worse.

    Spending your life alone in a small jail cell? Or your life being ended? I, for one, can't imagine being shut away in a steel cell for the rest of my life. That in itself is more deterrent and punishment than the death penalty could ever provide.

    Just to add a little bit more to this discussion, Karl Rove recently spoke for a luncheon by the Heritage Foundation. In that, he cited several Supreme Court decisions that the administration did not support.

    One of them was Roper v. Simmons, in which the Supreme Court decided that the death penalty for juveniles was cruel and unusual.


  • Andrew Tunall (unverified)

    Just a correction. Rove's speech was to The Federalist Society. Here in the exerpt from the transcript.

    Just a few months ago, five Justices on the Supreme Court decided that a “national consensus” prohibited the use of the death penalty for murders committed under the age of 18. In its decision, the majority ignored the fact that, at the time, the people’s representatives in 20 states had passed laws permitting the death penalty for killers under 18, while just 18 states–or less than 50% of the states allowing capital punishment–had laws prohibiting the execution of killers who committed their crimes as juveniles.

    You can read the rest at


  • dmrusso (unverified)

    I agree with Andrew. I think that death is the easy way out, even if we were barbaric enough to make it painful. Life in prison without the possibility of parole, even in isolation would seem much more horrible of punishment than death.

    I also agree that reparations need to paid back to victims and their families.

    Ultimately, the one of the questions is do we believe people are innately good or evil? If they have committed a horrible crime are they no longer worth anything? I say, no. They may not be able to be reformed, but they can pay back society with their labor.

  • Robert Harris (unverified)

    I'm not so much against horrible unredeemable murderers being executed, but I don't see how you can be sure you're only executing the horrible unredeemable cretins Until the criminal justice system achieves perfection.

    You can make the DP more difficult to impose, or more rare by raising barriers to its imposition, but because I'm against executing any innocent people I've got to be against the death penalty because there is always the possibility that an innocent person will be executed.

    I used to be OK with the DP until I asked myself two questions.

    1. Is the criminal justice system, including our judges, proescutors, police investigators, defense attorneys and juries so perfect that only guilty people are convicted? If you answer no (which is the only rational answer) then.....

    2. How many innocent people are you comfortable with executing as long as you can execute 1000 horrible cretinous murderers.

    My answer is zero, but If you answer anything above zero to the second question, then I guess I can see you being in favor of the DP. But I'd frankly hate to be the innocent person you were willing to sacrifice (or their brother father or son) just so some in our society could achieve the catharsis that seems to flow from an execution.

    We do have true life in prison. (despite what the pro DP propagandists will tell you). But if you want something more, how about a "living death penalty" The convicted can have a "death penalty" imposed in court symoblically. There won't be an actual execution, but The person will have limited appeals, with evidence of actual innocence being an exeception. They can't see relatives, or be with the general prison population (they are on death row). They are, for all intents and purposes "dead" to the world.

  • (Show?)

    I'm against capital punishment.

    Not because I think it's never appropriate to take a life, but because the death penalty can never be implemented perfectly. If you take a human life in error, or execute some people and not others because of things, like race, that have nothing to do with their crimes, that's murder--not legally but morally and ethically. Given that there are effective alternatives to ensure that a person doesn't kill again, to execute people under those circumstances is unconscionable. To do it ostensibly in support of the notion that human life is beyond value is absurd.

    The left is as much to blame for the reinstatement of the death penalty as the right is, in my opinion.

    We've managed to give a lot of people the impression that we don't take violent crime seriously, that we understand the seriousness of state-sponsored killing but not any other kind. That we hate guns but have a soft spot for people who use them in cold blood. That we are against the death penalty because we are deluded or squeamish--we don't want blood on our hands and we'd rather not think about what a killer has done to get blood on his.

    I have not yet followed the link to the debate provided in the original post but I did follow the first link that Jeff provided. (I don't mean to be picking on you with what follows, Jeff. I like much of what you write, I just happen to think you are on the wrong track with this one.)

    Jeff's post is an excellent example of the kind of stuff that we say that will never sway the people in the middle who are available to be pursuaded against the death penalty--indeed I think it's the sort of thing that helps perpetuate support for it.

    For those persuadable people, although they may think revenge is appropriate, it's not about revenge. Revenge is personal and these aren't people they know. It's not about blood lust, unless you are there and a part of the proceedings, there is little to satisfy blood lust. At best a non-rabid-right-wing person who is for the death penalty is going to listen to what Jeff has to say, recognize that it has nothing to do with their views, and dismiss his opposition to the death penalty. At worst, he's playing into that stereotype of the America-hating bleeding-heart liberal who bleeds only for all the wrong people.

    Most of those persuadable people who favor the death penalty do so because they have been convinced that it is the only way to see justice done and keep society safe. If we care about abolishing the death penalty in this country, we need to quit demonizing those people and start talking to them about the things they care about.

  • Sid (unverified)

    Aside from the ethics, it's also interesting to look the cost to taxpayers.

  • Peter Graven (unverified)

    Philosophically, one might consider that your existence could be divided into two; your existence as it relates to society, and your existence as it relates only to yourself.

    The death penalty ends both. Life in prison ends only the part that relates to society. The latter seems like the logical role for society in the matter.

  • activist kaza (unverified)

    Chip: Thanks for taking the time, but more importantly, courage to get out and lead on this issue. Can we expect some legislation from you in 2007? Let me know and I'll amend/update my comments today on this subject over at the kazablog

  • Rep Chip Shields (unverified)

    Andrew: Thanks for the kind words. The death penalty was passed by constitutional amendment, so in the legislature most of the work around the death penalty deals with defending against Republican, and unfortunately some Democrats, attempts to expand the death penalty. Additionally, there are often attempts to weaken the 6th amendment right to counsel, which can be troubling because in some of these cases, if you change the lawyer, you change the outcome.

  • djk (unverified)

    I'm with those who have no problem with killing murderers in principle, but oppose the death penalty based on the accuracy of the system.

    I'm continually amazed by the right-wingers who insist that government needs to be curtailed because it can't do anything right, but believe police, prosecutors and courts never make a mistake when it comes to convicting and sentencing people to death.

    Even more bizarre: all the tort-reform-spouting Republicans who insist that out-of-control juries cannot be trusted to accurately evaluate damages in (say) a medical malpractice or a product liability case, but trust those same juries to be accurate, unerring and just on matters of life and death.

    It strikes me that "we can't trust the government to get anything right" would be a pretty persuasive way to frame the argument against the death penalty if you're trying to influence people on the right.

    The idea of a "living death" penalty is a good one. But really: isn't "life without parole" the same as the death penalty? You're sentenced to remain in prison until you die. The only difference is whether the state accellerates the process, or sits back and waits for God, nature, the defendant, or a fellow inmate to do the job. Either way, the defendant spends years in prison and eventually dies there.

    Since the death penalty is currently mandated as an option by the Oregon constitution, and is unlikely to be eliminated, I'd like to see better safeguards against error stronger standards of proof required to put someone to death. Two obvious ways to do this:

    (1) The state pays the full legal fees for defense, including independent experts and private investigators, for any person charged with a capital crime. The obligation for the state to pay these fees starts as soon as the state announces its intention to seek the death penalty. From that point on, the state foots the bill for the attorney of the defendant's choice. Don't want to pay to defend them? Don't have that sort of money in the budget? Take the death penalty off the table and seek life without parole instead.

    (2) Define a legal standard of "guilt beyond the possibility of doubt" that will be required to prove a death penalty case. You can convict with guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but the presence of any exculpatory evidence that casts even a scintilla of doubt on the state's case will mandate life imprisonment rather than the death penalty. The death penalty would still be available, but only in those rare cases where the evidence is so powerful that it leaves no possibility of mistake.

  • (Show?)

    Doretta, most issues have moral as well as policy elements, but the death penalty is not one. I wrote about it passionately as revenge because there's no other way to view it as policy: it has no benefit in deterence, and isn't the only solution for separating criminals from society. These are the only reasonable policy objectives of killing. So why do we continue to kill? Rich Lowry described it perfectly in his National Review column yesterday. He's describing the case of Stanley Williams:

    Williams has indeed seemingly changed in jail. He has put down the shank and picked up the pen. And his anti-gang work may well have done some good. No one should discount the power of redemption. But redemption begins not with fine sentiments and celebrity friends, but with repentance. Stanley Williams is a liar who hasn’t yet taken responsibility for his horrific crimes. He deserves justice, and is scheduled to get it on Dec. 13.

    This is not a statement of policy, it's a purely moral argument: Lowry has judged Williams, and he wants his blood.

    I'm normally pretty sensitive about how I say things, understanding that everything exists in a poltical context. Sometimes someone needs to use language that challenges basic assumptions, though. I have no confidence whatever that America will do away with the death penalty anytime soon, and I don't think that's the real issue. The real issue is the moral framework Americans use to justify executions. There's a reason all other modern democracies, with the exception of Japan and India, have abandoned the practice. Why is the US the fourth-leading executioner, nestled among China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia? These may be uncomfortable questions, but I think they're critical.

  • Visitor (unverified)

    It is amazing that Rep. Shields calls for life in prison without the possibility of parole and restitution for those convicted of aggravated murder, when only six months earlier he created a false dichotomy between funding schools or funding more prisons. And, how does someone who receives prison wages adequately provide restitution to the victim’s (or victims’ as the case may be for certain aggravated murders) heirs? And, what’s not cruel about having an innocent person to spend the rest of his or her life in prison without the possibility of parole?

    If the perceived problem is not having 100% accuracy, perhaps funding adequate court systems, which include a strong public defenders system as well as adequate funding for state crime labs, investigators, and prosecutors’ offices, will address that issue. Let’s reinvigorate the jury system so that all citizens can afford to sit on a jury for trials that last weeks on end, and let’s raise the pay of public defenders, judges, and prosecutors so that the best, most qualified, and those with the desire to enter those noble parts of the criminal justice system all clamor to those positions.

    On the other hand, if the perceived problem is moral in nature, perhaps Rep. Shields is correct in asking Oregonians to take a hard look at whether we want to keep this part of our constitution. What values do we want in our constitution and what values (or so-called “polic[ies]” to raise a different) are in our constitution that do not belong there? But in doing so, let’s make sure to separate out the issues. Let’s not vilify a system and offer no palatable alternatives. Let’s offer specific fixes instead of lofty platitudes.

  • JTT (unverified)

    Visitor- During the last session, Rep. Shields did NOT perpetuate the Republican created false choice between schools and seniors (not schools and prisons as you say). In fact, I remember Rep. Shields and Rep. Buckley calling for the elimination of some business tax breaks to bring more revenue into the state--not that the Republican leadership would even have considered that idea in committee.

  • sr (unverified)

    The comments I read along the lines of "well, I'm not too upset about killing murderers" just confuse the hell out of me. Hello? If the State is killing someone...and if this is a representative democracy...then isn't the State simply acting as your proxy?

    I know how I feel about this. I am not willing to give the State my proxy to kill people.

  • Visitor (unverified)

    JTT--I'm not commenting on Rep. Shields comparing schools and seniors as others may have done last session; rather, I respectfully maintain that Rep. Shields created the false choice of funding schools or funding prisons. That is, Rep. Shields appeared to assert that if the legislature were able to pass three Senate bills that would have allowed more so-called "good-time" credits that give inmates additional credit for time served (for example a day served in prison equals two days off the total sentence) then we'd be able to spend more money on K-12 education as well as colleges and universities. He staked his claim in his June Newsletter:

    An article in that newsletter has the headline: "Oregon Spending More on Prisons than Universities and Community Colleges" and goes on to say:

    Currently in Oregon we spend more on corrections than we spend on universities and community colleges combined.

    Because I believe that it is imperative for this Legislature to begin the difficult work of stabilizing our growing prison population and addressing our funding priorities, I have worked hard to ensure passage of three bills -Senate Bills 435, 436, and 437- that have considerable evidence that they will increase public safety and save taxpayer dollars. Passage of these bills will allow the state to shift much needed funds to K-12, higher education, law enforcement, and services for some of our most vulnerable citizens.

    Further, I think, but could not confirm this morning, that an op-ed piece to this same effect was published in the Register-Guard.

    Which brings me back to my original post -- it was amazing that on the one hand, Rep. Shields creates a false up-or-down vote on prisons vs. education, and on the other hand, six months later, he decides that life in prison without the possibility of parole is the only option for the most heinous murderers. To me, it seems that when progressives (as well as conservatives and all others civically-engaged) discuss the viability of capital punishment, then they should be offering solutions that specifically address the perceived problems. If accuracy is a problem, then offer solutions that will address that specific issue, instead of comparing apples to oranges.

    Finally, in response to the comment by sr, the state is no more acting as my proxy in executing someone a jury has sentenced to death, than it is when it is severing a parent’s right to raise his or her child, giving excess revenues back to corporations in the form of a kicker, or failing to provide health insurance to children. In a representative democracy, citizens will always find themselves on the losing side of a policy issue. But that doesn’t mean the state is acting as someone’s individual proxy. If you disagree with the policy choice Oregonians made, then work to change that vote. There’s no need to make this personal--in fact, democracies work to make it an “us” decision, not an “I” decision.

  • Political Staffer (unverified)

    I think there are situations where the death penalty is an appropriate punishment, (like certain instances when a murderer can not determine the difference between right and wrong) but I do recognize that our courts are not perfect.

    If innocent people are being convicted, then there must be some case for reasonable doubt that was not brought to the courts attention or not presented in such a manner that seemed reasonable. Yes, we are innocent until proven guilty, but When evidence begins to mount up pointing to one person, that person needs to defend themselves and have evidence to the contrary, an alibi, witness, etc.

    Juries sometimes convict people when the evidence is convincing enough (not beyond a reasonable doubt) and that is where a lot of these problems arise. Many of you will agree that these fatal errors are the court's responsibility, but understand that our courts are not out there going willy nilly to sentence people to death.

    I do feel bad for the innocent person that can not make his or her case or present it as reasonable, can not poke holes in the prosecution's evidence that is leading the jury to a false conclusion.

    I just don't feel comfortable with saying never, under no circumstance.

  • (Show?)


    I don't read Rich Lowry's comment to mean exactly what you do but in any case, his moral justification for the death penalty is not the be-all and end-all of why the U.S. has the death penalty. Yes, there is a contingent of the right wing who just like the idea of killing people. You may have noticed that many impulses to fascism have found a happy home with the neocons and their hangers-on. If you think those people don't exist in every country, you are fooling yourself. You think Germany doesn't have the death penalty because the character of the German people inherently lacks those impulses?

    The larger question is why those people have managed to keep the death penalty alive (so to speak) in this country and not in others. Perhaps you believe that they are in the majority, but I don't. I've talked to a lot of people who support the death penalty. Some of them are quite enthusiastic but the overwhelming majority are not. I haven't kept numbers but I've certainly talked to a lot of people whose support I'd even characterize as reluctant.

    That relatively unenthusiastic group, I believe, has the numbers to sway the argument. I think you hit on a big reason why most of them do support the death penalty, but you've dismissed it out of hand with "isn't the only solution for separating criminals from society".

    I submit that most of them do see it as the only guaranteed solution for separating the most dangerous criminals from society. As a simple matter of fact, they have a point. Ted Bundy, one of the worst of the worst, was quite good at getting out of custody and there are other such examples. That argument can be overcome, I think, because although those things happen, they are rare and you can balance that with the inevitable execution of people who are innocent.

    The real problem is the one I mentioned in my first post. People have gotten habituated into thinking that we can't keep people in jail and that life without parole is not real. They believe that even if we have a very good law the law can always be changed later to let people out. They also believe that given enough time, and life in prison gives you a lot of time, any murderer can trump up enough "technicalities" as to why they should go free. Furthermore, they believe that there is a cadre of people on the left who will be willing to work tirelessly to make those things happen.

    As long as the best we can do is to accuse them of blood lust, they aren't likely to change their minds about any of that.

  • Visitor (unverified)

    Just a couple comments:

    The founding fathers found capital punishment entirely appropriate, therefore clearly not to be regarded as cruel and unusual punishment and, in any case, far from unconstitutional.

    I don't care if capital punishment has no deterrent effect; it has an attractive rate of recidivism.

    I acknowledge that some unknown, but very, very small, fraction of those executed are innocent. I do not expect perfection in this world. I concur we should work to reduce the rate of that phenomenon to as close to zero as possible.

    Withall, I support the death penalty.

    The best argument I've seen for abolishing it is that it employs many lawyers in fashioning appeals and, in general, I dislike lawyers.

  • Robert Harris (unverified)


    I really do appreciate your honesty in that your willing to allow murder yourself (state execution of innocent persons) if it means keeping the death penalty. Perhaps you could change my mind if you would be willing to hand over yourself or your closest loved one to the executioner in order to keep the DP available for society. By the way how many executed innocents is acceptable? 1%, .5%, 3%? (This also of course brings up the issue of abortion, where anti abortion folks are against the killing of innocents, unless its the trade off for keeping the DP)

    I assume your last comment was made in jest, but if it wasn't its very sad that you think that its more important to see that less lawyers is more compelling than executing innocent persons.

  • Bruce Thomas (unverified)

    Mr. Harris-

    I thought I had posted a reply earlier, but something must have gone awry.

    I simply understand that any human endeavor inevitably suffers error and, in consequence, capital punishment will sooner or later result in the death of an innocent. I would estimate this to occur in less than 1 in 10,000 cases, given the degree to which such sentences are appealed and reviewed. I find this to be an acceptable rate of failure. Perfection will not be found in this world.

    My personal feeling is that SCOTUS should have declined to hear Roe vs. Wade. Abortion is an issue to be decided between the principals: a physician and his patient. It is not an issue for the federal government, being clearly one of those matters governed by the 9th Amendment. The Constitution is silent on the issue.

    In terms of lawyers, I worked for over 25 years in a court setting, as an investigator, and firmly believe that a large over supply of lawyers is presently making this country far too litigious. Many, probably most, of those practicing are motivated by money. Consequently, they are willing to venture any new legal theory that will allow them to aim for someone else's deep pockets, regardless of whether this serves the interests of justice. Fools need to suffer the results of their folly, not run to a tort lawyer in hopes of finding riches. The tendency to litigate every slight is ruinous to civil society.

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