An Oregonian Asks: Does a Killer Have the Right to Die?

Marilyn Sewell - Unitarian Univeralist Minister, Writer.

Gary Haugen wants to die. Or at least that's what he says. He is a convicted killer who has repeatedly asked to have his appeals waived. Haugan beat to death his girlfriend's mother in 1981, and in 2003, killed a fellow inmate, who ended up with a crushed skull and 84 stab wounds. Haugan was to be executed at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Oregon, on August 16, but his execution has been postponed until a judge orders a mental competency evaluation.

Haugen says it's his right to die. And he believes that the courts are a mockery of justice. In a statement before the court at his recent hearing, he read from his hand-written remarks: "I sit in my little cage on the row and watch, as everyday rulings are made that reinforce the fact that there is no such thing as equal protection ..."

The state did a practice run on August 16, Haugen's original execution date. According to the Oregonian, a corrections official threw a notched belt at Haugen, ordering him to measure his neck, arms, wrists, ankles, and legs, but did not explain why. Haugen guessed that the prison needed measurements for the straps which will hold him down when he receives the lethal injection. "It needs to be done in not only an ethical way, but in a moral and dignified manner," Haugen said.

If there is no reprieve, Haugen will be the first man executed in Oregon since September 6, 1996, when Douglas Franklin Wright died by lethal injection. Wright lured five homeless men to a remote spot, promising jobs, only to shoot four in cold blood. The fifth man escaped and told the story. Wright was convicted on October 6, 1993, and confessed to another kidnapping and murder in 1984, this one of a 10-year-old boy.

Several of us parish ministers visited the governor to ask that he commute Haugen's sentence to "life in prison with no possibility of parole." The governor had the power to do so, but said that his hands were tied because "the people have spoken."

As a minister, I was invited by a local television station to be present at the station for an interview immediately following Wright's execution. When the reporter asked me how I felt upon hearing that Wright was dead, I said that I felt sick to my stomach. I said that as a citizen of Oregon, I felt responsible for the death of this man. If it is morally wrong for an individual to kill, then it is also wrong for the state to kill, I said. I remember that the atmosphere at the station was something of a circus. I left as soon as possible.

There is no practical reason for supporting capital punishment, for we know that it is no deterrent. We also know that it is more expensive to execute a prisoner than it is to keep one in prison for life, because of the cost of appeals. And we know that the death penalty is widely practiced with prejudice and unequal application of the law. Recently cases have been re-examined with DNA evidence, and we now know that some innocents have been on death row. The only remaining motive for capital punishment is vengeance, and that motive is spiritually bankrupt.

The state of Oregon instituted capital punishment in 1864, by statute. In 1903, by law hangings were carried out only at the Oregon State Penitentiary, to avoid the spectacle of public attendance. Twice since then capital punishment has been repealed and then reinstated, the last time in 1978, with 64 % of the vote. At the moment, there is a strong movement in the state against the death penalty, and I hope Oregon will soon join the 16 other states who have outlawed this practice, one that has been given up long ago by other countries in the West.

Some people say that Gary Haugen has the right to die, if he so wishes. I disagree, for if he dies at the hands of the state, then his blood will be upon all Oregon citizens. We are the "people who have spoken." I, for one, do not want to be guilty of taking a life. He has no right to make me a killer.

source: Marilyn Sewell, Unitarian Univeralist Minister, Writer.
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