Blog of Rights

Thanksgiving on Oregon's Death Row

By Tanya Greene, Advocacy and Policy Counsel, ACLU at 1:47pm

Just in time for Thanksgiving, last week Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon issued a moratorium on all executions in the state, including that of Gary Haugen, who had waived his remaining appeals and was scheduled for death in December. In doing so, Gov. Kitzhaber said, “I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer; and I will not allow further executions while I am governor.”

The ACLU of Oregon had participated in the ongoing challenge to Oregon’s death penalty, signing a letter to the governor urging him to declare a de facto moratorium on executions pending a study of the costs and effectiveness of the death penalty.

In issuing a moratorium on the death penalty in Oregon, Gov. Kitzhaber likely recognized that the national rate of exonerations makes if very likely that at least one of the 34 men on Oregon’s death row is innocent. Oregon has carried out two executions since it reinstated the death penalty in 1984; as the governor noted, both men were “volunteers” who, like Haugen, relinquished their rights to test the validity and reliability of their death sentences. As Gov. Kitzhaber explained, “I do not believe that those executions made us safer; certainly I don’t believe they made us more noble as a society. And I simply cannot participate once again in something I believe to be morally wrong.”

Capital defense teams know that these “volunteers” are often people so mentally ill and damaged by life trauma and the conditions of solitary confinement – 23 hour-a-day lockdown in a windowless, bathroom-sized cement cell alone with limited if any access to books, radio or TV and no contact visits with family – that they prefer death to the limbo of life on death row. Serious questions have certainly been raised about Gary Haugen’s mental health after serving 30 years in prison.

Gov. Kitzhaber also likely took into account continued questions about Oregon’s outdated and
incomplete lethal injection procedures, especially in light of the current legal unavailability of execution drugs nationwide.

Finally, Gov. Kitzhaber probably realized that, with the cost of the death penalty often more than double the cost of a non-capital murder case, sometimes $2 million to $3 million more per case, Oregon may now be able to redirect limited finances toward violence prevention programs and cold case investigation, two alternatives proposed by death penalty opponents in the state.

Without the courageous action of the governor, Oregon would have carried out its first execution in 14 years. Please join the ACLU in thanking Gov. Kitzhaber for stopping the scheduled execution of Gary Haugen by granting him a temporary reprieve.

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