Statesman Journal focuses on death penalty and OADP: From hate to healing

Aba Gayle holds a photo of her daughter, Catherine Blount who was murdered

One mother was able to forgive the death-row inmate responsible for killing her daughter, becoming an advocate against the death penalty

For years, Aba Gayle "lusted for revenge" against the California death- row inmate who murdered her 19-year-old daughter.

But everything changed when she mailed the killer a letter, saying she forgave him.

Paying visits to San Quentin prison, Gayle befriended the man she once despised and wanted put to death.

As hate gave way to healing, she turned against the death penalty.

Now, the 77-year-old Silverton woman is a leader of a nonprofit Oregon advocacy organization that is seeking to abolish the death penalty here.

Even though condemned killers rarely are executed in Oregon, Gayle says it's time for Oregonians to repeal the law that allows state-sanctioned killing.

As she tells it, the ultimate punishment should be scrapped because it sucks taxpayer dollars, undermines human values and takes revenge in arbitrary fashion.

"It truly is the ultimate violation of human rights," she said. "It is horrendous to think that when they kill somebody at the penitentiary, they do it in the name of the citizens. I don't want anybody killed in my name."

As this state's first execution in 14 years draws near, Gayle and other members of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty are waging a two-pronged campaign.

First, they are hoping to persuade Gov. John Kitzhaber to stop the planned execution of two-time killer Gary Haugen. Haugen, 49, voluntarily dropped his appeals, and he is tentatively scheduled to die by lethal injection at 7 p.m. Dec. 6 at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.

Anti-death penalty activists are asking Kitzhaber to commute Haugen's death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Kitzhaber has remained mum about the execution.

On a second front, OADP is planning a campaign to ask Oregon voters to repeal the death penalty.

The timing for a potential ballot measure remains "up in the air," said Ron Steiner of Salem, the board chairman of the nonprofit organization.

For now, Steiner said, the group is working to "build coalitions" and circulate information about the death penalty through public forums, lectures and newsletters in the news media and on the organization's website.

"When all the facts are known, all the issues are examined, it's very difficult for reasonable people to support a failed public policy like the death penalty," he said.
 
Activism roots in New Mexico
 
Steiner, 72, worked in television for more than 40 years, starting in sales. He rose to executive positions and ran a couple stations before he became a consultant.

His opposition to the death penalty developed in the late 1990s in New Mexico. At the time, he was doing volunteer work at a transitional home for ex-felons.

After listening to a talk by Sister Helen Prejean, author of "Dead Man Walking" and a nationally known critic of the death penalty, Steiner delved deeper.

"I started to study it and it looked ridiculous the way it was set up, so I got involved with the New Mexico coalition to repeal the death penalty in early 2001," he said.

The campaign led to success in 2009, when New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson signed a bill repealing the state's death penalty.

Steiner now lives in Salem but divides his volunteer time between causes he supports here and in New Mexico. Since 2003, he has been married to Caren Jackson, a professional photographer and former director of Salem's Riverfront Carousel.

Steiner describes Prejean as a personal hero and role model.

"She's indefatigable," he said. "She just goes and goes and goes. When she was here, she was putting in 14-hour days."

Prejean recently spent about a week in Oregon, giving talks in Eugene, Salem and Portland. Steiner introduced her when she spoke to about 200 people at the Salem Library on Oct. 20.

Like Prejean, Steiner said he's committed to long-haul advocacy.
 
Group cites growth
 
With Haugen's potential execution in the news, Oregonians are paying attention to the death penalty, Steiner said.

OADP evolved from a previous organization known as the Oregon Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, founded in 1983. The current group has no paid employees, Steiner said. Money for operations and expenses comes from donations and grants.

Steiner described OADP's annual budget as "a low five-figure amount."

"If we get on the ballot, obviously, it's going to be a lot more expensive to advertise and get our position known."

Despite limited funding, the organization's list of supporters is swelling, Steiner said. He said the number of religious and secular organizations backing the group has increased from a handful to more than 50.

"We're adding them all the time," he said.

In addition, Steiner said, the number of newsletters circulated by OADP, via e-mail and regular mail, has increased during the past 18 months to about 1,500, from about 250 in April 2010.

Membership is growing, too. The organization's Web site lists hundreds of members, including attorneys, physicians, religious leaders, teachers, crime victims  and former Corrections Department employees.
 
Visiting daughter's killer in prison
 
Grief and rage consumed Gayle after her daughter Catherine Blount was stabbed to death in California in 1980.

"I didn't belong to a church. I didn't have a minister or a rabbi or anybody to guide me through the process of grieving, which is a necessary process," she said. "So what happened is, I got stuck in anger, and I was there for a long, long time."

Twelve years after the murder, a spiritual awakening prompted her to write a letter to the convicted killer, Douglas Mickey.

In the letter, Gayle described her daughter's special talents and intelligence, explained how the murder caused her to sink into years of anguish and rage and how she eventually came to forgive him.
 
"I hope this letter will help you to face your future," she wrote. "There is only love and good in the world regardless of how things may appear to you now. I am willing to write to you or visit you if you wish."

Dropping the letter in the mailbox triggered a powerful emotional release, Gayle remembered last week.

"All of a sudden, all the anger and rage was gone," she said. "I was truly in a state of grace, just from offering another human being forgiveness. I knew in that moment that I didn't need to have someone murdered by the state of California so I could be healed."

Looking back, Gayle described her first visit to San Quentin as "the most terrifying day of my life." But her fear and anxiety eased when she met the death row inmate.

She returned to the prison often for more conversations with the convicted killer.

"We became friends," Gayle said. "We had a lot to talk about."

Mickey remains on California's death row — more than three decades after the 1980 slaying.

Gayle, who moved to Silverton 10 years ago, still corresponds with him as she remains determined and upbeat about the cause.

"We have to end the death penalty," she said. "My heart says it's going to happen."
 
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Anti-death penalty group

Name: Oregonians for Alternatives to theDeath Penalty

Annual budget: Ron Steiner, chairman of the OADP board, declined to specify a dollar amount, describing it as "a low five-figure amount."

Background: The all-volunteer, nonprofit advocacy group evolved out of a previous organization, known the Oregon Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, founded in 1983.

Membership: Hundreds of names are listed on the members' page of the organization's website, www.oadp.org. Members include attorneys, physicians, religious leaders, teachers, crime victims, former Corrections Department employees and other citizens opposed to the death penalty.

Goals: Repeal of Oregon's death penalty through a potential ballot measure; replacing lethal injection with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole; preventing the planned execution of Gary Haugen through a lobbying
campaign that asks Gov. John Kitzhaber to commute Haugen's death sentence to life in prison without parole

Message: OADP says the death penalty should be scrapped, in part, because it is not an effective deterrent to murder; it is applied arbitrarily and disproportionately against the poor and minorities; it diverts resources from effective criminal justice and social programs; it encourages the idea that violence is an appropriate solution to social problems; and it carries the risk of executing innocent people.

Ongoing Coverage

Today's report is part of a continuing series of stories about Oregon's death penalty, death row and the planned execution of Gary Haugen, whose execution is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 6.

To read previous coverage, go to StatesmanJournal.com/deathrow.

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