Oregon’s Death Penalty: On the Ropes

Oregon’s Death Penalty: On the Ropes


At the 34th Annual Salem Peace Lecture event at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, Former Board Chair Ron Steiner and current Board Member Frank Thompson, retired Superintendent of Corrections for the State of Oregon, were both honored as Peacemakers of the Year for their efforts to abolish the Death Penalty locally and nationally.

To mark the occasion Frank Thompson wrote these word:

Nearing the finish line, Oregon is poised to end state-sponsored executions, and become the 24th state to do so. The U.S. Supreme Court lists Oregon as “an abolitionist state.” Largely because no executions have taken place here since 1997. Oregon is one of three states with a moratorium.

Accelerating momentum towards abolition, the 2019 Legislature significantly reduced the list of death eligible crimes. The federal list of capital offenses is 41 but Oregon’s list has now shrunk to four. Just last year, Governor Brown commuted the sentences of the last 17 on Oregon’s death row. They will now live out their days in the general prison population. She called the death penalty “an irreversible punishment that does not allow for correction; is wasteful of taxpayer dollars; does not make communities safer; and cannot be and never has been administered fairly and equitably.” Her commutations were “consistent” with the legislature’s effort to functionally end the death penalty. Brown also ordered that Oregon’s only death chamber be dismantled.

But the death penalty isn’t dead yet, it is on life support inside the state’s Constitution. As Frank Thompson, a former Superintendent of Oregon’s only executing prison says “We’re so close! Giving up now would be like deciding not to cash in the winning lottery ticket you have in your wallet.” Thompson came to the abolition side later in life. Raised in the segregated south he was drawn to law enforcement early in life. His cousin and another person close to him were slain in the line of duty as police officers. “Like many other family members of murder victims, I wanted revenge for their murders, swift and final. A lot of us back then had an Old Testament attitude about crime, you know, an eye for an eye, a life for a life.”


Growing up in Arkansas, Thompson’s life was filled with stories of Jim Crow injustice, Ku Klux Klan firebombing, terrorist lynching, and the unpunished murder of innocent Black people. He was a teenager in 1955, about the same age as young Emmett Till, when Emmett was abducted, tortured, and lynched by white nationalists. Emmett’s mutilated body was dumped into the Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River with a 70-pound cotton gin fan tied to his neck.

When Thompson was recruited to run Oregon’s only maximum-security prison, it wasn’t to execute people. “I was asked in the hiring interview whether I would be willing to carry out a court-ordered execution. I answered ‘Yes’, in part because I was trained to take life under certain circumstances when in the military and as a state policeman. However, that seemed almost beside the point, as Oregon hadn’t executed anyone for more than 30 years. The main reason I was hired was to implement the new Oregon law that required everyone incarcerated to work.”

Before coming to Oregon, Thompson, a prison superintendent in Arkansas, realized that education and meaningful work were important factors in a person’s rehabilitation. “People can change with proper guidance and encouragement; they can have a change of heart and are thus redeemable.” Perhaps that was the genesis of Thompson’s softening stance on capital punishment. But neither he, nor those who hired him in 1994, had any idea what he was about to be asked to do in the name of justice.

Capital punishment in Oregon has a history dating almost to its birth as a state. In 1864, public hanging was the first popular expression of the death penalty. In 1905 the Legislature moved executions into the Oregon State Penitentiary. Since then, the death penalty was voted out twice, became law four times, and was even struck down by the Oregon Supreme Court. In 1984, voters added the death penalty back to Oregon’s Constitution, at the height of the “tough on crime” wave.

A year into Thompson’s new job, death row inmate Douglas Franklin Wright waived his right to further appeal and the courts granted his wish to be executed, Thompson went into high gear as the Oregon State Penitentiary had only a gas chamber that had not been used since 1962. “I had to get up to speed on the protocol for executing someone by injection, then find and train staff willing to accept the assignment to the execution team. Adding to the anxiety about what I was doing, I was afraid about the toll it would take on mine and other’s lives.” Renovations to the gas chamber and the apparatus of death were time-consuming and expensive. I cannot put into words the anxiety I felt about the possibility of a botched procedure. These were the first executions in Oregon to be administered by use of lethal injections. I was the first Black superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary. All these firsts had the potential to come together in a very negative way if my team made a single mistake.”

Governor Kitzhaber was also feeling the stress and ethical dilemma about his role in approving a person’s death. “I was torn between my personal convictions about the morality of capital punishment and my oath to uphold the Oregon constitution. They were the most agonizing and difficult decisions I have made as Governor, and I have revisited and questioned them over and over again ever since.” The mental and financial cost to Oregon’s taxpayers for keeping the death penalty alive is enormous. Most of the expense is in litigation. The state Department of Justice defends its right to kill a convicted murderer while the defendant’s attorney, usually also funded with tax dollars, argues appeals in state and federal courts. A 2016 study by Lewis & Clark Law School and Seattle University found that the average cost to litigate EACH of Oregon’s 61 death sentence cases was almost double that of trying non-death sentence murder cases – $2.3 million versus $1.4 million.

Despite lawsuits attempting to prevent it the state executed Douglas Wright in 1996 and he got his wish as did Harry Charles Moore in 1997. In Wright’s case, the Department of Corrections paid staff overtime wages of $85,000 in 1996, just for training and security duties. That’s equivalent to more than $160,000 in today’s dollars. The average daily cost to incarcerate an inmate in Oregon in 1996 was a bit under $54 or approximately $19,000 a year.

In his third term as Governor, Kitzhaber called a halt to executions. “I am convinced we can find a better solution that keeps society safe, supports the victims of crime and their families and reflects Oregon values. I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer.” Thompson came to the same conclusion as Kitzhaber. A year after the second execution he moved to run another prison that did not hold executions until his retirement. Now he calls the death penalty “immoral” and “a failed public policy” as it doesn’t deter people from murder. He also speaks of its traumatic impact on staff. “My involvement as lead executioner forced me into a deeper reckoning with my feelings about capital punishment. My staff showed high levels of stress while thinking about and performing their duties. I worried they were being traumatized. I realized that others involved were as disturbed as I was.”

Since retiring in 2010, Thompson has traveled the US and Oregon advocating for abolition. His testimony helped several state legislatures decide to pull the plug on state-sanctioned killing. As a tireless board member with Oregonians Against the Death Penalty he is now working on a ballot measure to remove the death penalty from the Oregon Constitution. When Oregon Governor Kate Brown commuted death row last year, Thompson asked to be present for the dismantling of the execution chamber. “It’s a relic of the past and since I helped to construct it, I think it only appropriate to invite me back to see it taken apart.”

Looking forward, Frank is hopeful. “It will be hard to bring an end to the death penalty in Oregon, and in the nation, but we will be a healthier society when we do. Replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole does not excuse the horrific acts these individuals have committed. It merely removes a glaring double standard in a society that champions ‘the sanctity of life.’ It makes no sense that we criminalize murder and then murder those who murder! I trust that we’ve made some humane changes since the Old Testament days.”