Jeff Ellis, Oregon Capital Resource Center: We shouldn't execute Gary Haugen until we finish the death penalty debate

Jeffrey Ellis is an attorney, the director of the Oregon Capital Resource Center and a member of the board of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty

August 10, 2012

Imagine a death row inmate who is unquestionably ineligible for a death sentence. That person might be intellectually disabled. Or, he may be severely mentally ill. Now, imagine that the governor attempts to remedy this miscarriage of justice through his constitutional clemency power. However, the condemned man refuses to accept the reprieve or commutation of his sentence to life in prison. Maybe the prisoner would find it shameful to acknowledge that he is "mentally retarded." Or, he may harbor delusional beliefs about the reasons for his execution.

These scenarios do not need to be drawn from the imagination. At his trial in Arizona, Jeffrey Landrigan commanded his attorneys not to present any evidence that might spare his life. After learning about the information that Landrigan kept hidden, the sentencing judge later stated that if she had known about Landrigan's brain damage, fetal alcohol syndrome and parental abandonment, she would not have imposed the death penalty. Scott Louis Panetti from Texas, who was allowed to represent himself at a trial despite his severe schizophrenia, was days away from being executed before a stay was issued despite his belief that his execution would prove the satanic conspiracy against him.

According to the logic of The Oregonian's recent editorial "Time to let Haugen die" (Aug. 7), we should be required to execute anyone who does not accept a reprieve or a commutation even if executing that person violates the Constitution, our community's sense of decency, and is a mockery of justice. Clemency is not a private contract between our governor and an inmate, where each inmate has ultimate control. Gov. John Kitzhaber was not using his broad clemency powers for the narrow purpose of offering a singular reprieve to Gary Haugen. The moratorium was for all of us.

What is especially concerning about The Oregonian's position is the editorial board's agreement that our death penalty system is broken and should either be fixed, if that is possible, or replaced. The editorial board noted: "You could make a compelling case that Oregon would be better off without the death penalty at all." And it continued, "What you can't make a good case for, though, is the status quo."

Why then would we go through with an execution produced by an admittedly broken system before we engage in what Kitzhaber has properly called the long overdue debate about whether to continue our experiment with the death penalty in Oregon?

It is not time to give Haugen "a date with the executioner," because we are not "allowing" Haugen to die. We are considering whether we want to continue killing people in all of our names. When we execute a human being, we do it in all of our names. It's our choice, not his. When Kitzhaber declared the moratorium, he did so consistent with the power granted to him by the people through the Oregon Constitution. The ruling by Marion County Circuit Judge Timothy Alexander takes that power from the people. His ruling would require us to execute someone who we all agreed was not even eligible for the death penalty. The Oregonian was wrong to endorse such a flawed and dangerous decision.

It's time to begin the death penalty debate in earnest. Haugen will need to wait until we Oregonians have finished our discussion at the ballot box.

Jeffrey Ellis is an attorney, the director of the Oregon Capital Resource Center and a member of the board of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty



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