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Oregon Supreme Court declines to block execution

SALEM — The Oregon Supreme Court said Monday it will not block next month's execution of twice-convicted murderer Gary Haugen, spurning an attempt by death penalty opponents to halt the state's first execution in 14 years.

The court's decision is the last legal hurdle in Haugen's months-long quest to waive his remaining appeals. A Marion County judge has ordered that Haugen be executed by lethal injection on Dec. 6.

The Oregon Capital Resource Center, which opposes the death penalty, argued to the Supreme Court that a trial-court judge improperly ignored a psychologist's report suggesting Haugen may be incompetent. The group also argued that one of Haugen's current lawyers has a conflict of interest because he represented Haugen at trial.

But in 4-3 opinion, the justices ruled that the record "demonstrates no legal error."

Haugen can cancel the execution at any time if he decides to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Several groups opposing the death penalty have also asked Gov. John Kitzhaber to halt all executions and conduct a thorough review of capital punishment in Oregon.

In frequent letters to court officials, Haugen has repeatedly said he wants to be executed to protest what he sees as a broken criminal justice system. He has called the death penalty process "arbitrary" and "vindictive."

Haugen and Jason Van Brumwell were sentenced to death in 2007 for the killing four years earlier of David Polin, who was found with 84 stab wounds and a crushed skull in a prison band room. At the time of Polin's death, Haugen was serving a life sentence for fatally beating Mary Archer, his ex-girlfriend's mother, in 1981. Unlike Haugen, Van Brumwell has appealed his sentence.

The Supreme Court, for the second time, weighed the importance of an affidavit from Portland neuropsychologist Muriel Lezak, who evaluated Haugen earlier this year at the request of his former attorneys, Keith Goody and Andy Simrin.

Lezak determined that Haugen may suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome and attention deficit disorder. She also wrote that Haugen sustained numerous head injuries that resulted in unconsciousness, and his thought processes are "slow and sluggish."

Haugen later said he wasn't properly advised before cooperating with Lezak's evaluation and asked to fire Goody and Simrin. Marion County Circuit Court Judge Joseph Guimond asked Haugen a series of questions, found him competent to fire his lawyers and ordered that the inmate be executed in August.

The lawyers wrote a letter to the Supreme Court, arguing that Lezak's affidavit cast doubt on Haugen's competence and he should be more thoroughly evaluated. The justices agreed and the execution was canceled.

Haugen was given new lawyers, who said they oppose the death penalty but would advocate Haugen's desires in court. Haugen was later evaluated by another psychologist, Richard Hulteng, who found that he has an average intelligence and a personality disorder but is not currently suffering from a mental condition that would impair his ability to make reasoned legal decisions. The judge again found Haugen competent and ordered an execution.

He also granted Haugen's request to seal Lezak's findings.

The Capital Resource Center, which advises lawyers and investigators working death penalty cases, filed its latest motion last month. Attorney Jeffrey Ellis argued the Supreme Court's first ruling prohibited Haugen's lawyers from excluding the Lezak affidavit when determining his competency for a second time.

The justices disagreed, finding Haugen's attorneys were given appropriate opportunity to offer evidence about their client's competence.

Ellis also argued that one of Haugen's current lawyers, Steve Gorham, has a conflict of interest because he represented Haugen at trial. Ellis argued that Gorham is not be able to give sound advice about the likely success of an appeal because he might have to point out his own shortcomings from the trial phase. The justices did not rule on that argument.

Dissenting justices Paul De Muniz, Robert Durham and Martha Lee Walters argued that their first ruling required the trial court to hear from a lawyer making the case that Haugen is incompetent. The court's majority — justices Thomas Balmer, Rives Kistler, Jack Landau and Virginia Linder — dismissed that argument.

"We share the dissenters' premise that every death penalty case raises the most profound issues of morality and social justice," Balmer wrote for the majority. "The record before us, however, demonstrates no legal error in Judge Guimond's conduct of the proceedings to determine Haugen's competence, nor any failure on his part to comply with the terms of our writ."

Ellis did not immediately respond to a phone call and email seeking comment.

A spokesman for Kitzhaber has said the governor wouldn't comment on the activists' request to halt executions until Haugen's legal case plays out. The governor's office could not immediately be reached late Monday.

Kitzhaber was governor in 1996 and 1997, when two inmates also requested to waive their appeals. The governor declined to intervene and the men were executed.