Oregon Governor Places Moratorium on Capital Punishment
In a move that will certainly be welcomed by civil libertarians, those inherently skeptical of government power, and criminal justice reformers, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber has officially placed a moratorium on all executions, issued a temporary reprieve stopping the Dec. 6 execution of Gary Haugen and urged Oregonians to “find a better solution” to a system that he said is arbitrary, expensive and “fails to meet basic standards of justice.”
Oregon Live reports that Gov. Kitzhaber has always been opposed to capital punishment but “chose to swallow his well-known revulsion to the death penalty and enact what he believed to be the will of the people, allowing the 1996 execution of Douglas F. Wright and the 1997 execution of Harry C. Moore to take place.” But as another inmate was set for execution in just two weeks time, Kitzhaber’s personal beliefs and disgust with the state’s death penalty system was too much this time, saying, “[i]n my mind, it is a perversion of justice…. 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.”
The current death penalty law in Oregon is quite odd, as the state will only execute inmates who have voluntarily waived their legal right to appeal. Nonetheless, Kitzhaber finds the current system broken beyond repair and a mockery of the concept of swift and certain justice. He favors life sentences without the possibility of parole since the current system is “far more expensive…because most death row inmates fight their sentences in expensive and prolonged legal challenges.”
In a released statement, Kitzhaber elaborated on his reasoning for implementing the moratorium:
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.
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.
Whether the moratorium will last is another question entirely. Oregon has, what you might call a complicated history with the death penalty. It was first statutorily enacted in 1864 and abolished and reinstated multiple times since. Kitzhaber said he wasn’t sure if the people of Oregon support repealing capital punishment, but death penalty activists lobbied the Governor to institute the moratorium until the state can thoroughly review its death penalty procedures.
Even though it’s possible the moratorium may be lifted based on Oregon’s past fickleness when it comes to the death penalty, it’s hard to see this decision by Governor Kitzhaber as anything but good news. Capital punishment is flawed public policy, and it’s nice to see an elected official speaking out against it so eloquently. I’ve previously written about the death penalty here and here.
Image via New York Times