Oregon Legislator: Debating capital punishment: We can be tough on crime without the death penalty

December 2, 2011 Last week Gov. John Kitzhaber made a controversial decision to issue a reprieve for condemned inmate Gary Haugen and charged the Legislature with taking up capital punishment in 2013. As a staunch supporter of Measure 11 and other tough-on-crime legislation, I surprised many in my Republican caucus by supporting the governor's decision.

Until recently, I was 51 percent to 49 percent in favor of the death penalty. A shrug of the shoulders often reflected my indifference and disdain for someone who committed the most heinous atrocities in our society; whether they lived or died was of no consequence to me. Truth be told, I would rather not share a planet with someone like Gary Haugen.

This February, less than a month after being sworn in, I toured the Oregon State Penitentiary to research a handful of bills intended to save money in prison health care delivery. What I saw in the penitentiary infirmary that day tipped my opinion on Oregon's death penalty and compelled me to take a stand.

In a small prison hospice room, three nameless inmates agonized on gurneys. The one nearest me made eye contact briefly before rotating uncomfortably in place, his dirty stocking feet poking out from underneath a sheet. Outside a prison, the appropriate feeling is sympathy. Inside, I was overcome by an overwhelming feeling that this is how it should end for a child molester, rapist or murderer.

At that moment, I knew it was OK to be tough on crime and still be against the death penalty. The two principles are not contradictory.

The death penalty rewards antisocial, criminal behavior with attention -- the front page of the newspaper or the leading story on the 5 o'clock news. In Haugen's case, we almost acquiesced to his request to die rather than face a dreary lifetime without purpose behind bars. We wouldn't give an inmate a flat-screen TV if he asked, so why would we give Haugen the comfort of escaping his obligation to pay for his crimes?

I find it uncomfortable to strap a prisoner to a board and kill him in front of an audience. I would much rather he die quietly in obscurity, rather than with fanfare and notoriety.

I'm asking my fellow conservatives to keep an open mind and actively participate in the discussion in the coming months. The financial cost of capital punishment is staggering, and the inconsistency with which it is applied is deserving of a conversation.

I think it's fair to say that most who favor capital punishment do so out of a desire to convey their disgust and indifference toward these vile criminals in the strongest tone possible. I can convey the same, knowing they will die in prison after a long and purposeless life.

The closer you get to capital punishment, the uglier it looks. This is an issue of justice, value and dignity -- not for the condemned, but for us.

By Patrick Sheehan
Republican Patrick Sheehan represents Clackamas in the
Oregon House of Representatives.
© 2011 OregonLive.com. All rights reserved.
Published: Friday, December 02, 2011, 4:30 AM



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