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ACLU Lens: Oregon Death Penalty Moratorium Latest Step Toward Abolition

Will Matthews,
ACLU of Northern California
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November 23, 2011

Expressing regret that he allowed two executions to go forward 10 years ago, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber yesterday put a moratorium on the state’s death penalty and granted a reprieve to a man scheduled to be killed in two weeks by lethal injection.

In an afternoon news conference, Kitzhaber called the death penalty “compromised and inequitable” and said the state needs “to consider a different approach.” Kitzhaber highlighted the enormous cost of maintaining a death penalty system, saying it is much less expensive to sentence people to life in prison without any possibility of parole then to condemn them to death row.

“Yesterday’s courageous decision by Gov. Kitzhaber in Oregon adds to the growing and irreversible momentum toward the complete abolition of the death penalty in this country,” said Denny LeBoeuf, director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project. “The governor was correct to recognize that the death penalty system in his state and across the nation is plagued by systemic injustices and is broken beyond repair. It is arbitrary, discriminatory and costs taxpayers enormous amounts of money. Today we celebrate moratorium in Oregon, recognizing that capital punishment always violates human rights. This is a wonderful step toward the end of the death penalty in our country.”

Gary Haugen was slated to be executed Dec. 6 after disregarding the advice of his lawyers and waiving all of his remaining appeals in protest of a justice system he considers to be unjust and vindictive. The two previous executions under Kitzhaber’s watch, one each in 1996 and 1997, were of men who also volunteered to be put to death by giving up their legal rights. Kitzhaber said yesterday that Oregon voters did not intend to erect a death penalty system in which the only people executed are those who volunteer.

With Kitzhaber’s announcement yesterday, Oregon becomes the latest in a series of states to back away from the use of the death penalty. The New York Court of Appeals ruled the death penalty statute unconstitutional in 2004, the death penalty law in New Jersey was repealed in 2007, New Mexico did the same in 2009 and Illinois abolished the death penalty earlier this year.

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CORRECTION: It was the New York Court of Appeals, not the New York State Supreme Court, that ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in 2004.

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