Ballsy: Kitzhaber stops all death penalty executions for his term in office

Carla Axtman

Helen Jung, The Oregonian:

SALEM -- Gov. John Kitzhaber announced today he will not allow the execution of Gary Haugen -- or any death row inmate -- to take place while he is in office.

The death penalty is morally wrong and unjustly administered, Kitzhaber said.

The governor cited his constitutional authority to grant a temporary reprieve for Haugen, in effect canceling the planned Dec. 6 lethal injection of the twice-convicted murderer. Haugen waived his legal appeals and has been preparing for the execution, which would have been Oregon's first in 14 years.

Well done, Gov.

(Agree or disagree, this is what leadership looks like.)

Update: On the jump, the Governor's full statement.

From Governor Kitzhaber:

Under Article V, section 14, of the Oregon Constitution, I am exercising my authority as Governor to issue a temporary reprieve in the case of Gary Haugen for the duration of my term in office. I want to share with Oregonians how and why I came to that decision.

Oregon has a long and turbulent history with capital punishment. Our state constitution originally had no provision for the death penalty. Enacted by statute in 1864, the death penalty was repealed by voters in 1914, restored in 1920, outlawed again by voters in 1964, re-enacted in 1978, deemed unconstitutional by the Oregon Supreme Court in 1981 and again reinstated in 1984.

It has been carried out just twice in last 49 years in Oregon. Both were during my first administration as Governor, one in 1996 and the other in 1997. I allowed those sentences to be carried out despite my personal opposition to the death penalty. I was torn between my personal convictions about the morality of capital punishment and my oath to uphold the Oregon constitution.

They were the most agonizing and difficult decisions I have made as Governor and I have revisited and questioned them over and over again during the past 14 years. I do not believe that those executions made us safer; and certainly they did not make us nobler as a society. And I simply cannot participate once again in something I believe to be morally wrong.

Let me be clear, I had no sympathy or compassion for the criminals or for anyone who commits the most heinous of acts – taking the life of another person. The families and friends of victims deserve certainty that justice will be carried out on behalf of the loved ones who have been taken from them in such a cruel fashion.

But the nature of their crimes was not different from other murderers, some of whom are sentenced to death but never executed and others who are sentenced to life in prison. What distinguished those two death row inmates during my first term was that they volunteered to die.

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.

But we have done nothing. We have avoided the question.

And during that time, a growing number of states have reconsidered their approach to capital punishment given public concern, evidence of wrongful convictions, the unequal application of the law, the expense of the process and other issues.

Illinois banned it earlier this year, ending a legacy of faulty convictions, forced confessions, unreliable witnesses and incompetent legal representation. New Jersey abolished capital punishment after determining it had spent a quarter of a billion dollars on a system that executed no one. New Mexico recognized that the death penalty is neither an effective deterrent nor fair to victims’ families burdened with lengthy trials and appeals and replaced it with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

Today, in Oregon, we can no longer avoid the question. Last Friday, a death warrant was signed for another death row inmate, Gary Haugen. And again he has volunteered to die.

He is just one of 37 inmates on death row today. Some have been there for over 20 years. They all have many years and appeals left before there is even a remote possibility of carrying out their death sentence. Two others have died of natural causes after more than a decade on death row. The reality is that Oregon’s death row is an extremely expensive life prison term, likely several times more expensive that the life terms of others who happen to have been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole -- rather than the death penalty.

And while it may be convenient to blame lengthy and expensive death penalty trials and appeals on inmates “working the system,” the truth is courts (and society) continue to reinterpret when, how and under what circumstances it is acceptable for the state to kill someone. Over time, those options are narrowing. Courts are applying stricter standards and continually raising the bar for prosecuting death penalty cases. Consider that it was only six years ago that the U.S. Supreme Court reversed itself and held that it is unconstitutional to impose capital punishment on those under the age of 18. For a state intent on maintaining a death penalty, the inevitable result will be bigger questions, fewer options and higher costs.

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.

It was the will of the voters in 1984 to reinstate the death penalty in Oregon. I respect that and, in fact, have carried out that will on two occasions. I have regretted those choices ever since – both because of my own deep personal convictions about capital punishment and also because in practice Oregon has an expensive and unworkable system that fails to meet basic standards of justice. Twenty-seven years after voters reinstated the death penalty it is clear the system is broken.

To those who will inevitably say that my decision today compromises the will of the voters; let me point out that, in practice, it is the current system itself which compromises the will of the voters. I do not believe for a moment that the voters intended to create a system in which those condemned to death could determine whether that sentence would be carried out.

I could have commuted Mr. Haugen’s sentence – and indeed the sentences of all those on death row – to life in prison without the possibility of parole. I did not do so because the policy of this state on capital punishment is not mine alone to decide. It is a matter for all Oregonians to decide. And it is my hope – indeed my intention – that my action today will bring about a long overdue reevaluation of our current policy and our system of capital punishment.

Personally, I favor replacing the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole and will argue for that policy in any future debate over capital punishment in Oregon. Others will point to opportunities to speed appeals or change the criteria for death penalty cases. In any event we can no longer ignore the contradictions and inequities of our current system.

I am calling on the legislature to bring potential reforms before the 2013 legislative session and encourage all Oregonians to engage in the long overdue debate that this important issue deserves. I am convinced we can find a better solution that keeps society safe, supports the victims of crime and their families and reflects Oregon values.

Fourteen years ago, I struggled with the decision to allow an execution to proceed. Over the years I have thought if faced with the same set of circumstances I would make a different decision. That time has come

Comments

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    Wow. I don't do religion, but if I did, I would say "God Bless". No killing. Not now. Not ever.

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    Being intellectually consistent is very challenging for the politically motived (myself included). So, here's my hypothetical: Kevin Mannix is elected Governor (hurry, get the smelling salts, this is just a hypothetical) and as a good practicing Catholic, he issues a similar statement banning the death penalty while he is governor. However, Gov. Mannix, using an executive order, also bans the use of any state monies for contraception or abortions. After all, for him, the right to life goes beyond the death penalty and he would have lots of "research" to back him up. Would you be using "respect", "admire", "courage", "this is what leadership looks like" in your posts? "Ballsy." Yep. I'm certain THAT would be on your list. Now don't sidestep my question about bold leadership in the face of popular opposition by explaining what can/can't be done with an EO, or what may or may not be constitution. This is a hypothetical on whether you would "admire" someone's "leadership" and "respect him for his historic courage" if it were your ox being gored. Just curious...

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      Not sure I understand your post, but if Mannix is elected Oregon governor and a baby is born and Mannix then proposes to execute the baby with a 3 drug cocktail while strapped to a table somewhere, I assure you I will oppose it. Is that what you were looking for?

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        As with many obsessed anti-choice advocates, DF has used this opportunity to try to draw a parallel and attempt to expose what he sees as hypocrisy. The irony, of course, is that when the table is flipped, most anti-choice zealots see nothing wrong with the death penalty and some are so consumed & delusional that they actually find murder an acceptable method in effecting their political agenda.

        While I do not suspect that DF fits this latter profile, I do suggest the movement with which he seems to be aligned is itself challenged by its own illogical intellectual inconsistency.

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      Darrell, the difference is that the Governor has explicit powers under the Oregon Constitution to make these kinds of decisions.

      He doesn't have powers under the Oregon Constitution to do what you're suggesting in your hypothetical scenario.

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      I'm sorry, Darrel, I'm confused. What does birth control have to do with the death penalty?

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      First, Darrell, this is not about right to life, but about civilized behavior by the state. Second, most Oregonians do not equate contraception or abortion with state execution, both because of the actor and because of the target of the action.

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      Let us know when you are in favor of the state having the right to force you to donate the use of your organs for the benefit of someone else (even if one accepts the absurd proposition that a zygote is a "someone") without your consent.

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      I did NOT say the Governor acted unlawfully. The Oregon Governor has plenary powers of commutation and I have every reason to think he consulted with your employers before he acted. While he may have had the RIGHT to do what he did and while those opposed to capital punishment may be celebrating, if you really believe in a populist democracy then either you 1) get the legislature to change the law (attempted unsuccessfully by Floyd Prozanski) 2) Get the State Supreme Court to invalidate it - they said the opposite or 3) either say what Kitz said in 1997 - "It's the law and despite my personal opinions I need to follow it" or you quit. The people on Oregon's death row are not innocent, are not retarded, were not under 18 when they murdered. They included people like serial killers Cesar Barone and Dayton Leroy Rogers, child murderers Conan Hale and Jesse Compton, and similar worst of the worst. If the Democratic Party really wants to anger most Oregon voters, this is a great move. Very few are single issue voters - as I have said I have supported and promoted several state-wide candidates whose opposition to capital punishment contrasted with my retentionist view. But there is a difference in saying "I oppose" and "I don't care what voters or the courts say" and then compare Oregon with Illinois. I don't think Kitzhaber wants to be seen in the same light as George Ryan - currently in federal prison, like so many other Illinois governors.

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        Josh, what you specifically said -- and I can get the tape from KXL if you want -- is that the Governor "disregarded the rule of law." Trying to parse that so say you didn't accuse him of acting unlawfully is a distinciton without a difference and one only a lawyer would even attempt.

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    I am proud to have supported Governor Kitzhaber today. The death penalty needs to be done away with.

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    There are some truly evil people out there who, by their acts, deserve to die. Let it happen while in maximum security on a life without parole sentence. I didn't get to this point from the altruistic sentiments of the Governor, but am there all the same.

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    Good job by Gov. K. It would be nice if this started another wave of moratoriums.

    (And Carla, can we try using the adjective "gutsy" rather than ... well you know. Happy Thanksgiving!)

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    Since, as the last paragraph of the Governor's statement makes clear, he came to this decision years ago, was it "gutsy" of him to conceal this decision from the voters when he ran for election last year?

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      "Conceal this decision..." infers that he deliberately kept it from voters. Was he ever asked about his position during the campaign and gave an answer that indicated otherwise?

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        Kitzhaber twice allowed prisoners to be executed the first time he was governor, stating at the time that despite his own moral opposition to the death penalty he would follow the law.

        Voters were entitled to rely on that position having not changed. It was his responsibility to notify them that his position had in fact changed. Failing to do so constitutes concealment.

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          Mmm....no. I don't buy that. Especially given that we know a lot more now about the death penalty system in Oregon (and elsewhere) than we did back then. A lot of people have changed their mind on the DP in the last 10 years (myself included) as new information has come to light.

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            But you haven't run for office with a record on one side of an issue, changed your mind but concealed that from the voters until after you were elected.

            I think Kitzhaber is right about the system in Oregon being broken. But it is no more broken now that it was 14 years ago when he allowed an execution to go forward.

            Now he is not only calling for a statewide debate over the death penalty, he is stating flat out,"I will not allow further executions while I am Governor."

            Since he obviously reached this decision years ago, he had an obligation to let the voters know.

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              I think it's MUCH more clear now than 14 years ago that the system is broken. Research and empirical reversals have done that job.

              He's not doing it, according to him, based on his personal opposition. It's that he doesn't believe he'd be upholding the Constitution by allowing an unfair process to guide life and death. I would hope that wouldn't need to be declared by ANY candidate.

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          Jack, I seriously doubt that many death penalty proponents even considered voting for Kitzhaber. I'm just saying.....

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            If that were true, he wouldn't have won.

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            I supported John Kitzhaber for both his first two terms of office knowing full well his personal opposition to capital punishment. He didn't conceal it. I was asked and helped recruit other law enforcement to endorse Kitzhaber. But he also said in 1997 that it was not his role to supplant his will for that of voters, or now even the Oregon Supreme Court. The courageous thing to do is not to pander to your base, it is to uphold the law, even when that makes you unpopular. Jack is correct, if he said "I intend to undo Oregon's death penalty" he would likely not have been re-elected. None of the states that have "abolished" capital punishment have done so by popular vote. Oregonians said YES in 1977 and 1984 and recent polls show even stronger support.

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              The courageous thing to do is what you think is right, no matter how unpopular it is--especially with people who aren't afraid to get on their soapbox. That includes upholding the law--which is his constitutional duty. It's apparent that in this case, he believes that he is.

              Kitzhaber has never given a crap about what his "base" thinks. I've personally disagreed with a number of things he's done, and I would think I certainly qualify under that label.

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              Josh, again, what part of Article V, Section 14 of the Oreogn Constitution don't YOU understand? The Governor HAS upheld the law, even though it makes him unpopular with you. And let's please stop this "th epopular vote" is to kill people stuff. If 68% of people wanted to re-enslave African-Americans, would it be right? Of course not. Some issues are simply baseline matters of human rights. This, many of us believe, is one of them. If you're going to support the death penalty, that's your right, but stop basing it on polling. That's not courage. What John Kitzhaber did was.

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                Well Marc, if you ever work on capital cases you might have a different view. But comparing the death penalty to slavery is absurd. Marc, since you are a lawyer I assume you understand the concept of a nation of laws, nit a nation of men. When the law allowed slavery brave men and women violated the law to smuggle slaves out and worked to elected a president who opposed slavery. On this subject you are in a minority of about 25% and if you want to think you are more morally evolved than the rest of us, fine. But please tell the victims of the second series of victims of people like Gary Haugen, Richard Marquette, and Carl Bowles what you say to them after those killers received "life" sentences and then killed again. Compare that with the number of people on Oregon's death row who were wrongly convicted...as in zero

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                  Josh, that's the standard "unless oyu've served you can't comment on the military argument. ALL citizens have a right to an opinion on the death penalty informed by their philosophy and experience. That "minority" was once a 70% majority, and might be again. This issue should not change with polling. And, in that regard, it's exactly like slavery (or speech or assembly) -- a principle so core and fundamental you don't get to decide it by a vote. Since 1973, several hundred people have been released from death rows across the nation. Wrong convictions are a problem in this nation. And what I would tell the families of victims is "an eye for an eye" is not the best and highest statement of a society. I don't claim to be "more morally evolved" than you (nice snark rather than mature discussion, BTW), but I do feel strongly this is a baseline. You disagree. Fine, but you don't get a weighted vote because you prosecute such cases.

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                  For what it's worth, this blog comment is the subject of a PolitiFact Oregon column.

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                Mark, Kitzhaber didn't commute anyone's sentence. He simply granted a "reprieve" until he is out of office--which is also constitutional but frankly harder to defend from your moral position, I think.

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          Is anyone a single-issue voter on the issue of the death penalty? In other words, did Kitzhaber win or lose anyone's vote b/c of his overseeing of two executions in 1996 and 1997? I don't think so. If so, it's probably 2 or 3 votes on each side. Therefore, I think your point is fairly meaningless.

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      It would be interesting to hear if the Governor ever said that he made a mistake in allowing the prior volunteers to be executed.

      Sister Helen Prejean laid out a very clear case against the Death Penalty about a month ago (as she's been doing for some time), at City Club: http://pdxcityclub.org/content/death-penalty-oregon-and-america

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      Mr Roberts, He did state his position during his campaign against Mr. Dudley. It was at a League of Women Voters Forum.

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      "Gutsy", perhaps not. Smart, yes.

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      IMHO (in my humble opinion) attacking a person is a logical fallacy. It is obvious that the politics of personal destruction are at work here and not an honest disagreement on the issue. I have

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    It's always a puzzle to me why the the present day GOP, even the "moderate", Jack Roberts, is so in love with the death penalty and take such delight in using the state to kill people for the sake of revenge. This by a party that claims to be pro-life and Christian. They even attack the Catholic Church and the pope for its stance against the death penalty. When GOP governor of Illinois, George Ryan, changed his mind as a matter of conscience while in office, and halted all executions, I admired that. And I admire it now when Gov. Kitz does likewise. Would today's GOP in Oregon even nominate a candidate like Mark Hatfield, a person of conscience, who opposed the death penalty and worked against it? I think not. There's no room for people like him any more. The cheering approval at the record number of executions (one of whom an innocent man) by Gov. Perry at the candidate's debate speaks volumes about the values of today's GOP.

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      I don't know anyone who "is in love with the death penalty and take such delight in using the state to kill people for the sake of revenge." But when the people twice vote by large marjorities for the death penaly and the Oregon Supreme Court just last week confirmed its legality, I believe it is an abuse of the governor's constitutional power to pardon, commute or reprieve a convicted criminal's sentence to declare that he will use that power to prevent any imposition of the death penalty while he is governor.

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        Exercise, not abuse. Duty, frankly. It would have been wrong to allow them.

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        "I don't know anyone who 'is in love with the death penalty and take such delight in using the state to kill people for the sake of revenge.'"

        I guess you missed the recent GOP presidential debates.

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ocKFSLsZnUo

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        Jack, if there were no death penalty, there would be no need for commutation. By definition, commutation exists and is legal and appropraite because the death penalty exists. So is it an abuse EVER to use it by your logic? And would it cease to be if support for the death penalty dropped below 50%, or merely to 52%?

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        Then you are blind to the attitudes of a major swath of those within your own party then. Or you are being disingenuous.

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    Well, Mr Roberts is doing an impressive job of channeling Captain Renault: “I'm shocked, shocked to find that Governor Kitzhaber is a liberal!”

    I’m not that plugged into the intricacies of Oregon politics, yet even I knew the Governor had profound misgivings about the death penalty. While I didn’t expect him to make this decision neither was I surprised, but to accuse the Governor of political fraud is disingenuous at best. Citizens in this state knew the ideology of the candidates, and chose the more the liberal of the two. End of story.

    While I’m also sure that some of the folks who voted for Kitzhaber support capital punishment in theory, when life without parole is offered as an alternative, support for it plummets, and the notion that any hard-core conservative advocates of the death penalty voted for Kitzhaber is laughable. The Governor won by, give or take, 23000 votes, and I wonder if those who supported him in 2010 would sit around the dinner table and really say, “Gee, I really want to vote for Kitzhaber, but I’m afraid he may stop the state from killing people -- maybe we should vote for Dudley.” I doubt if it would’ve made that much of a difference, but given the fetish right-wing media in this state makes of capital punishment, you never know.

    In any event, this is a moot point. He’s made his decision, and it’s sure to be an issue no matter who runs in 2014, but for the time being Oregon is on the side of her better angels.

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      John Kitzhaber was a liberal the first time he was governor and he allowed two people to be executed despite his personal opposition. Voters were entitled to assume that he would do the same thing when he was voted back into office for the third time. It was dishonest of him not to tell people that he had changed his mind.

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    I'd sure as heck rather have a governor who actually evolves through age and experience, than one who stagnates emotionally and intellectually, because that's what the voters thought about him 15 years ago.

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