OADP Oregonian Column: Kitzhaber's invitation to listen as well as talk

Kitzhaber's invitation to listen as well as talk about the death penalty

December 04, 2011

Gov. Kitzhaber has invited Oregonians into thoughtful conversation. The hiatus in executions gives us time to talk and listen to each other. Disapproving reaction focuses on two concerns. One is gubernatorial powers in our democracy. The other is the death penalty. Support for the death penalty seems to be based primarily (and circularly) on the fact that Oregonians support it, and beliefs that it provides just deserts for the heinous crimes of remorseless killers, it keeps us safe , and it comforts victims' families. These positions reveal legitimate desires to prohibit murder, uphold democracy, foster public safety, and vindicate the suffering of survivors of those lost to violence.

But, Gov. Kitzhaber pointed out that the Oregon death penalty isn't meeting these objectives. We haven't reconciled our value of due process with these other values. The result is executions only when condemned people themselves decide to die. Let's face it, this isn't what Oregonians intended. Kitzhaber acted responsibly and within his prerogative as Governor of Oregon. He halted a terribly flawed public policy when the Oregon Supreme Court failed to do so on Monday.

We have an opportunity not just to 'debate' the death penalty. This doesn't help us to solve the problems highlighted when aggravated murders occur. These crimes are horrifying. We are right to be outraged. But their rarity also indicates their individuality. Each case is different. What is similar is the immense harm created in families both of the victims and the perpetrators. Public servants and first responders are sickened as they enter shocking crime scenes and recreate the trajectories of victims and perpetrators resulting in these fatal encounters. Legal professionals struggle to reconcile rights and control objectives with fairness and appropriateness as they bring cases to court. Citizens like us are traumatized with jury service. Corrections workers interact with people who, on Oregon's death row, seem to be safely housed and controlled such that they aren't the continuing threat we feared when they were sentenced. Prisoners are there for decades unless someone volunteers. Then there is an execution. Corrections professionals who work to change people are drafted onto a team that, alone among their duties, is entirely destructive. A group comes together to plot the killing of another human being who is compliant, no threat, and tied down after months anticipating his death. It looks ironically similar to a terrible criminal act. This similarity not lost on people who participate on execution teams if we are to believe the increasing number of personal testimonies which are being published.

We need a very good reason to persist with this policy. It is expensive. It fails to deliver total healing to the victims' families who have needs that our communities struggle to address in the absence of resources. And we are meeting public safety objectives without its actual implementation. Our values are more readily reconciled with our practices by using the alternative penalties we almost always use anyway: life without parole, and life with only the possibility of parole after 30 years.

Let's take up Gov. Kitzhaber's invitation to revisit our responses to severe violence. Let's not get locked into unproductive debates about the death penalty. Instead of insulting people who disagree with us, let's listen to each other. There's a kernel of truth in almost every opinion. Let's expand the horizon and ask what we want to do about this type of violence and all the harms that it causes. Let's see if we can use our resources more effectively now that we are confronted with the failure of Oregon's death penalty experiment.

By Rachel Cunliffe Hardesty
Rachel Cunliffe Hardesty is an assistant professor in the Conflict Resolution Graduate Program at Portland State University. She teaches classes on the death penalty and restorative justice.

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