Opinion: Gov. Brown, it’s time to commute Oregon’s death row

On the evening of Nov. 1, as day turned into night outside the Riverbend National Security Institution in Nashville, Tennessee, Edmund Zagorski spoke his last words. “Let’s rock,” he said, before prison staff covered his head with a black shroud and sent thousands of volts of electricity through his body. At 7:26 p.m. he was pronounced dead.Zagorski had specifically requested to die by electrocution rather than lethal injection, which has been the standard method for many years. He wanted to avoid the seemingly torturous deaths endured when dying by lethal injection. Others facing their own executions are demanding the firing squad or the gas chamber. Despite the ongoing decline in support among Americans for the death penalty, an ugly national conversation has begun as to how to put an end to the lives of people convicted of heinous crimes.

What does this have to do with Oregon? Our state has had a moratorium on executions in place since 2011. Moreover, we have executed only two people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1984, both by lethal injection and both of whom gave up their appeals.

Yet, despite the lack of executions, the state of Oregon’s continued support of the death penalty causes harm. The state defends existing death sentences, and district attorneys are still pursuing new sentences -- at vast expense. All those who labor within the “machinery of death” – judges, court staff, prosecutors, defense attorneys and others – continue their grisly work. The families of murder victims are promised an illusory “closure,” and the families of those on death row struggle with knowing that their loved ones live in the shadow of death.

Gov. Brown, the evidence is unambiguous and your authority is clear, please put an end to the wastefulness and suffering of Oregon’s death penalty.his ambivalence has a price beyond our state. Oregon’s continued administration of the death penalty helps to create the political space for executions in other states. Gov. Kate Brown could act decisively, using the powers the voters of Oregon have given her, and encourage other states to end their death penalties. Hence, we are calling on Gov. Brown to commute the sentences of all those on death row to life without the possibility of parole.

Brown commissioned a report that was published in 2016 iterating numerous problems with Oregon’s death penalty: the huge cost, the risk of executing an innocent person, the racial disparities, the high rate of sentence reversals, and the lack of a viable execution method. The flaws in our state’s system of capital punishment are clear, especially when you also consider the extremely high rate of mental impairments among those who receive death sentences and the fact that it’s a punishment that only a few counties are equipped to pursue.

Furthermore, the same report and other legal analysis make clear that Gov. Brown would be well within her powers to commute these sentences. Her ability to commute any criminal sentence to any lesser one is absolute. No one would obtain parole as a consequence of commutation, but we would cease funding de facto life without parole for people on death row and be honest about the fact that they will never be executed. The millions of dollars saved could be much better spent.

Brown should end the fiction that is the Oregon death penalty by clearing death row. Doing so would be an important step toward the decision that Oregon voters must take: removing capital punishment from the state constitution. It would spare
state officials from gruesome discussions about the “best” way for the state to kill. In the history of this country, no state has ever been able to administer the death penalty in a manner that is consistent, humane, just, effective, or fair. Let’s not
persist in dithering over what to do when the answer is straightforward.

Gov. Brown, the evidence is unambiguous and your authority is clear, please put an end to the wastefulness and suffering of Oregon’s death penalty.

By Bobbin Singh and Alice Lundell

Bobbin Singh is executive director of the Portland-based Oregon Justice Resource Center. Alice Lundell is the center’s

communication director.




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