Oregonian Editorial Board: A reprieve for Gary Haugen, a challenge to Oregonians

Kitzhaber issued a temporary reprieve of the execution of Gary Haugen

November 22, 2011

Listening to death row inmate Gary Haugen and Gov. John Kitzhaber expound on Oregon's death penalty, it sounds almost as though all this is between them, the two-time murderer ready to accept his punishment, and the three-term governor who can't bring himself to allow another execution under his watch.

There is someone else involved here: You.

What do you think? Is Oregon's death penalty system truly "broken," "inequitable" and "compromised," as Kitzhaber insisted Tuesday while announcing his decision to issue a temporary reprieve and block the scheduled Dec. 6 execution of Haugen?

We're not convinced it is. Neither, we suspect, are most Oregonians.

However, it has been 27 years since an overwhelming majority of Oregon voters reinstated the death penalty and wrote into law the abundant legal protections that grant convicted murderers such as Haugen many, many opportunities to appeal.

A lot has changed over those years. If the governor believes the problems that have arisen in other states and Oregon's experiences amount to just cause to re-examine the death penalty, then let's have that discussion. Mr. Haugen will just have to wait along with everybody else on death row.

Kitzhaber, who in 1996 and 1997 reluctantly allowed the executions of the only two killers executed in Oregon over the past 49 years, is now clearly done with the death penalty. He said Tuesday, "I simply cannot participate once again in something I believe to be morally wrong," and later, "I will not allow further executions while I am governor."

That's his prerogative. But if Kitzhaber felt so strongly about the "most agonizing and difficult decisions" he made during his first stint as governor, it might have been useful to mention in his 2010 campaign that he had no intention of carrying out Oregon law, or the will of the voters, if another scheduled execution landed on his desk.

If the Legislature takes up his invitation to look again at the death penalty in Oregon, it will be a different debate than in other states. No one seriously argues that either of the two men Oregon has executed -- or any of the 36 men and one woman on the state's death row -- is innocent. The issue here is not forced confessions, racial disparities or incompetent defense attorneys. This is not Texas, which has killed more than 400 criminals since 1982.

In fact, the sharpest criticism Kitzhaber and others level at Oregon's system is that so far it has resulted only in the deaths of those who forfeit some of their appeals. Kitzhaber calls them "volunteers." That raises the question of whether a death penalty system that gives convicted killers 15, 20 or more years to appeal their executions is "broken" or excessively careful and prudent. Would Kitzhaber and other critics be more or less comfortable with an Oregon system that offered fewer appeals and had executed more non-volunteers over the years?

Again, we're all for having an open debate about death penalty issues. There's a lot to consider, including the shifting views about how and under what circumstances it is acceptable for the state to take a life, and the high costs of lengthy death penalty trials and repeated appeals.

Kitzhaber made it clear that he believes Oregon should abandon capital punishment and replace it with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. We've seen no signs or polls that suggest a majority of Oregonians are prepared to side with him on this issue.

But let's look again at Oregon's death penalty. Let's have the debate. As Kitzhaber said in explaining why he chose to give Haugen a temporary reprieve rather than commute his sentence: "The policy of this state on capital punishment is not mine alone to decide."

No, it's not.

And it's not Gary Haugen's, either.

© 2011 OregonLive.com. All rights reserved.
Original article can be read at http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2011/11/a_reprieve_for_gary_...



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