by Jonathan Cooper
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Haunted by regret for allowing two men to be executed more than a decade ago, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber now says it’ll never happen again on his watch.
Calling Oregon’s death penalty scheme “compromised and inequitable,” the Democratic governor said Tuesday he’ll issue a reprieve to a twice-convicted murderer who was scheduled to die by lethal injection in two weeks. He said he’d do the same for any other condemned inmates facing execution during his tenure in office.
“I simply cannot participate once again in something that I believe to be morally wrong,” the governor said in uncharacteristically emotional remarks during a news conference in his office.
“It is time for this state to consider a different approach,” he said.
Death penalty proponents quickly criticized the decision, saying the governor is usurping the will of voters who have supported capital punishment.
Kitzhaber’s decision halts the execution of 49-year-old Gary Haugen, who had disregarded advice from his lawyers and asked to waive his remaining appeals in protest of a justice system he views as unjust and vindictive. Haugen, who was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Dec. 6, is one of 37 inmates on Oregon’s death row.
Haugen was serving a life sentence for fatally bludgeoning his former girlfriend’s mother, Mary Archer, when he was sentenced to death for the 2003 killing of fellow inmate David Polin, who had 84 stab wounds and a crushed skull.
Oregon has executed two men since voters reinstated the death penalty in 1984, one each in 1996 and 1997. Both inmates, like Haugen, had voluntarily given up their appeals. Kitzhaber declined to intervene in their cases, however, citing his oath to uphold the constitution.
But the governor now says he’s long regretted his decision to allow those executions, and he’s come to believe that Oregon voters did not intend to create a death penalty scheme in which the only inmates who are put to death are those who volunteer.
“The reality is that, in Oregon, our death sentence is essentially an extremely expensive life prison term,” Kitzhaber said. “Far more expensive than the terms of others who are sentenced to life in prison without parole, rather than to death row.”
Kitzhaber fought tears as he said he spoke to relatives of Haugen’s victims, saying they were difficult discussions and his “heart goes out to them.” He declined to discuss them further, calling them “private conversations.”
“We’ve been dealing with this since 1981,” Ard Pratt, Archer’s first husband, told The Associated Press. “It was almost over. And then he changes it because he’s a coward and doesn’t want to do it.”
Kitzhaber is a former emergency room doctor who still retains an active physician license with the Oregon Medical Board, and his opposition to the death penalty has been well-known. In a news conference explaining his decision, he cited his oath as a physician to “do no harm.” Kitzhaber was elected last year to an unprecedented third term as governor after eight years away from public office.
Oregon has a complex history with capital punishment. Voters have outlawed it twice and legalized it twice, and the state Supreme Court struck it down once. Voters most-recently legalized the death penalty on a 56-44 vote in 1984.
“It is arrogant and presumptuous for an elected official, up to and including the governor, to say, ‘I don’t care with the voters say, I don’t care what the courts say,'” and impose his own opinion, said Josh Marquis, a death penalty proponent and the Clatsop County district attorney. Marquis has prosecuted several capital cases and written about capital punishment.
Kitzhaber said he has no sympathy or compassion for murderers, but Oregon’s death penalty scheme is “an expensive and unworkable system that fails to meet basic standards of justice.”
His moratorium means Oregon joins, at least temporarily, four other states that have halted executions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment. Illinois this year outlawed the death penalty after the discovery of wrongful convictions. New Mexico voters abolished it in 2009, two years after New Jersey’s Legislature and governor did the same. A New York appeals court struck down a portion of the death penalty statute.
Politicians are often hesitant to discuss abolishing the death penalty for fear it will anger voters, said Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Kitzhaber’s decision might give confidence to leaders in other states, he said.
Death penalty opponents in California are trying for a ballot measure next year to outlaw capital punishment there. Legislators in Maryland and Connecticut could do the same, Dieter said.
One of Haugen’s lawyers, Steve Gorham, said Haugen was still committed to being executed on Tuesday morning. Gorham said he hadn’t spoken with the inmate since learning of the governor’s decision.
“I’m sure he’s not very happy right now. He was committed to exercising what he thought were his rights,” Gorham said, noting that he was personally pleased with the governor’s decision and calling it “courageous.”
Prosecutors have long complained that death penalty cases take decades to make their way through the courts, but efforts to change the law have been stymied in the Legislature. Eight condemned inmates have been on death row since the 1980s.
Oregon’s constitution gives Kitzhaber authority to commute the sentences of all death row inmates, but he said he will not do so because the policy on capital punishment is a matter for voters to decide.
Kitzhaber’s reprieve will last until he leaves office. His term ends in January 2015, and he has not said whether he’ll run for re-election.
Kitzhaber said he hopes his decision will prompt a public re-evaluation of the death penalty in Oregon and said he will advocate for a ballot measure that would make it illegal. The governor said he prefers murderers be given a life sentence without the possibility of parole.