Death Penalty in Oregon

Willamette Week's cover story this week is about the state of the death penalty in Oregon.

Oregon’s machinery of death is clearly in place. But since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed states to resume executions in 1976, Oregon has killed only [Harry Charles] Moore [in 1997] and Douglas Wright, who was executed in 1996 for killing three homeless men in a remote area of Wasco County. ...

Oregon’s execution chamber has stood empty for 3,900-plus days—since before Harry Potter became a household name. Meanwhile, 35 men sit alone this week in their cells on Oregon’s death row. The longest-serving inmate, a murderous prison escapee named Michael McDonnell, was sentenced to death 23 years ago. Yet his case, like all the others, remains on appeal. There are no executions scheduled.

“We have a situation in Oregon where nobody but a volunteer gets executed,” says Norm Frink, the Multnomah County senior deputy district attorney who oversees murder prosecutions in the county.

That’s because we live in one of 10 states that have capital punishment but have executed fewer than three people since 1976. Experts say Oregon’s next involuntary execution will probably take place around 2012 at the earliest.

WW argues that the current law makes no one happy.

Whether you’re for or against capital punishment, you should be outraged by what’s happening. To please the tough-on-crime crowd, we keep the death penalty. But to appease progressives, or to assuage our own conscience, nobody actually gets killed. ...

Oregon remains stuck with a backward system in which the state has the power to kill criminals yet refuses to do so—offending just about everyone who cares about the issue either way.

What are the prospects for reform?

Yet few people in positions of power care to make changes. Mannix says the Legislature failed twice in the late 1990s to streamline the appeals process. More recently, a proposal last year by two death penalty opponents merely to study Oregon’s capital punishment system died in the Legislature without even getting a hearing.

“We really didn’t feel like there was sufficient momentum,” says state Rep. Chip Shields (D-Portland), who along with state Sen. Ginny Burdick (D-Portland) was a prime supporter of the proposal.

Any legislator could take up the cause of reforming Oregon’s system, but there are just a handful of officials in key positions to make a change.

In Salem, Gov. Ted Kulongoski has the sole power to grant clemency in capital sentences but has never done so. The state’s chief executive, he could also drive debate on changing or revoking the death penalty law. Kulongoski spokeswoman Anna Richter Taylor says Kulongoski is personally against the penalty but committed to upholding the law.

The 2008 race to replace Attorney General Hardy Myers, who’s personally opposed to the death penalty, has one serious candidate who supports capital punishment and one who’s opposed. Candidate John Kroger, a law professor at Lewis & Clark College, says he supports the death penalty but would form a committee to consider options for reform, including possibly ending capital punishment in Oregon.

Candidate Greg Macpherson, a pension benefits lawyer and former state representative, says he’s opposed to capital punishment but would leave any changes up to Oregon voters. Neither candidate seems eager to lead a charge on the issue—their campaign websites don’t even mention it.

[WW, of course, gets Macpherson's status wrong. He's a current state representative. -editor.]

Read the rest of WW's extensive coverage. Discuss.

  • (Show?)

    Ah yes, more vaunted Willamette Week hyperbole. Apparently everyone is supposed to be offended by this "technically the worst of the worst can be killed, but we're so careful it almost never actually happens" system. No matter how we feel about the subject.

    Well sorry. I'm not offended. In fact I think it's just about right. And infinitely preferable to the kill-everyone-accused "reform" most voters would choose if any of Oregon's initiative demagogues knew hoe to craft something that could pass constitutional muster.

    Luckily, try as they may, the Bill of Rights isn't something Americans can easily vote away.

  • RuMo (unverified)

    I'm generally against the death penalty; however, exceptions can always be made.

  • Marty Wilde (unverified)

    This just seems to confirm what's common knowledge politically - with roughly 65% of people in the country supporting it, the death penalty isn't going anywhere anytime soon. It seems like at least the major politicians in Oregon are honest about this. Elected officials have an obligation to uphold the law, regardless of their political beliefs.

    Still, I tend to agree that the current system is ineffective. We should either have an effective death penalty with limited appeals, or not have a death penalty. A system that keeps prisoners in limbo for decades benefits no one.

  • Holly Martins (unverified)

    “We should either have an effective death penalty with limited appeals, or not have a death penalty.”

    The latter is preferable. If you begin seriously limiting appeals, you run the obvious risk of convicting and executing a truly innocent individual, at least you increase the chances of that sort of thing happening. If you combine that with the systemic problems in the judicial system, such as the discrepancy in legal representation based upon income, and life without parole becomes an acceptable alternative. That way, a wrong conviction can always be reversed. Not much of a chance of that if the fellow is dead.

    There is a certain moral allure to the notion of killing to punish killing, but given the fallibility of human beings, the risk of error is too great to justify capital punishment.

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    I agree with Steve Maurer -- if we're not going to abolish the death penalty it is preferable to have an "ineffective" one, for the reasons Holly mentions, though I don't share the sense of moral allure to which she refers.

    Oddly, the effect is like having the life with no chance of parole usually offered as an alternative by opponents, with an added bit of uncertainty that you could end up getting killed at some point. Since if we abolished the death penalty the people on death row and any of their successors would probably get life without parole anyway, so from my point of view, the current system does benefit us in that we are not (or at least not often) in the position of putting the state in the business of killing people.

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    We need the death penalty until we are able to commit to a natural life commitment with out benefit of a parole board or Governor modifying the sentence. What most people really want is a clear understanding that murders will be taking off the streets forever. Until then it does not matter how long it takes to put someone to death or how much it cost. What is important is the people that hold no value on life are not allowed to live in free society.

    It would be wonderful if people on the side of the table were able to fix this problem before people on the Mannix side of the table do.


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    Some crimes are heinous enough that they merit the death penalty. But a certain amount of gridlock in carrying it out is a good thing.

    I support the Innocence Project, and every time another inmate is sprung from prison after years of incarceration because new evidence or new technology have established his innocence ... well... I'm extra glad we have inefficient machinery of death here in Oregon. I wish it were so inefficient elsewhere.

  • Eric Parker (unverified)

    My feeling is simple: If you call yourself a Christian and are for the death penalty - you are a hypocrite.

    Always remember - and eye for an eye just leaves one less eye. Capital punishment solves nothing.

  • Holly Martins (unverified)

    “if we're not going to abolish the death penalty it is preferable to have an "ineffective" one, for the reasons Holly mentions, though I don't share the sense of moral allure to which she refers.”

    The “moral allure” I referred to is ultimately a delusion born of moral absolutism: the “eye for an eye” perspective. I don’t agree with it, but it certainly exists in society. Even if you offer life in prison with no parole as a viable option, there are still those who want to give pain for pain.

    It seems to me that in order to defend the death penalty one must agree to one of the following statements: (1) The judicial system is infallible, or (2) The necessity of executing the guilty outweighs the risk of executing an innocent. Of course, as I argued earlier, speeding up executions, which some tell us is necessary to make capital punishment effective as a deterrent (this seems a dodgy proposition to me), will only add to the risk. In any event, the fact that most (all?) western orientated democracies have eliminated the death penalty says something about its merits, and the further fact that in keeping it, the US is in bed with the most repressive political and religious regimes currently going.

    I’ve heard that some states actually have bans against testing the DNA of executed prisoners to prevent verifying their guilt (or proving their innocence). Not sure if that’s true, but one wonders how many confirmed unjustified executions it would take to shut the whole thing down. My wife says one, but I’m not so sure.

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    Stephanie V -- Well, it looks like there's one thing we agree on. I support the death penalty - but unlike our bloodthirsty Republican friends, I want lots of appeals, a certainty of DNA evidence, and long waiting periods. Living in a state where it's on the books, but never used (except for volunteers), well, that's about right to me.

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)

    I disagree w/Stephanie and Kari. I am not a proponent of the Death Penalty for the very reason they want to keep it. Too many appeals have made a mockery of that sentancing system. That a convicted killer has been on our death row for 23 years and may not even have to worry about his final solution for another 4 years is the height of hypocracy.

    I am in favor of Life w/out parole. Stirct and no interventionist governors. Put the convicted peron in the general population. If they end up like Jefery Dahmer, so much the better.

  • tl (unverified)

    I am opposed to the death penalty. Given the lack of political will to abolish it in Oregon, I am glad to know how rare it is for the state to take the life of someone.

    I think Holly's two statements frame the question of the death penalty quite succinctly.

    Stephanie V writes "Some crimes are heinous enough that they merit the death penalty." I ask what does she mean by "merit"? Is the death penalty to punish or seek revenge (often stated as "justice") against the perpetrator? Is it to "protect society" from the alleged criminal? Is it to deter future crime?

    I personally would feel no justice seeking revenge against someone who committed crime by seeing them put to death. Maybe others would, but not me. I certainly would feel much worse if someone innocent was wrongly put to death!

    I don't believe the evidence shows that violent crime goes down, or that people are deterred from violent crime by the existence of the death penalty (lengthy appeals process or not). I invite anyone to provide evidence that I wrong.

    As for protecting society, life without parole would achieve the same goal without the risk of putting to death an innocent person - an irreversible (and imho unforgivable) miscarriage of "justice."

    Perhaps you think I would change my mind if something dreadful, grisly, or heinous occurred to me or someone I loved. Well, even if some such thing happened to me, and there was 100% incontrovertible proof I would still oppose putting that person to death.

    For me, the proven fallibility and racism of our legal system trumps all other arguments in favor of the death penalty.


  • Marty Wilde (unverified)

    Hey folks, let's get real here. "Limited appeals" doesn't mean "no appeals". It means that a guy on death row should have the usual appeals up to the state, then federal supreme courts, then at least one chance at a habeus corpus petition to address things like ineffective assistance of counsel. That's quite a bit of appellate process. I think most of us would also support an extraordinary petition for an actual claim of innocence supported by new evidence. That's what we mean when we say "limited appeal". I don't think that the current system of endless litigation benefits anyone and it simply doesn't protect anyone who might be actually innocent. Anyone who says otherwise is being disingenuous and is almost certainly ardently opposed to the death penalty.

    In the end, that's the real problem with the death penalty, from my point of view. The endless litigation and excessive resources put into it detract from the resources available for the speedy and effective resolution of other criminal cases. I think the pragmatic argument is the strongest one when it comes to abolishing the death penalty. I respect those who disagree on moral grounds, but attempting to impose your personal moral code over the wishes of the 65% that support the death penalty is anti-democratic.

  • tl (unverified)

    Marty wrote: I respect those who disagree on moral grounds, but attempting to impose your personal moral code over the wishes of the 65% that support the death penalty is anti-democratic.

    I don't know if you were directing that comment at me or at others, Marty. In my case, I invite those who support the death penalty to examine to see whether evidence supports the beliefs they hold (e.g. reducing/preventing crime, bringing closure/relief to the victims/victim's families, etc.).

  • Marty Wilde (unverified)

    Fair enough, tl, but it's a difficult discussion to have. The often-absurd challenges and extensive litigation in even the most clear cut case (see, for instance, make it almost pie-in-the-sky to discuss what effect an effective death penalty might have. Even Jeff Merkeley, no great advocate, admitted that Oregon's death penalty statute was essentially an assisted suicide statute, since the only people actually executed have waived appeal. EVERY death penalty case gets appealed to the hilt, regardless of merit, because of the stakes and the money fronted by death penalty opponents. This is perhaps the best argument against it - the money spent prosecuting and defending could be more profitably spent funding other aspects of the justice system.

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