Kitzhaber bans death penalty
SALEM — Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber on Tuesday imposed a moratorium on the death penalty for the remainder of his term, saying he's morally opposed to capital punishment and has long regretted allowing two men to be executed in the 1990s.
Kitzhaber's decision gives a temporary reprieve to a twice-convicted murderer who was scheduled to die by lethal injection in two weeks, along with 36 others on death row. It makes Oregon the fifth state to halt executions since 2007.
The Democratic governor said he has repeatedly questioned and revisited his decisions to allow convicted murderers Douglas Wright and Harry Moore to be executed in 1996 and 1997.
"I do not believe that those executions made us safer, and certainly they did not make us nobler as a society," Kitzhaber said. "And I simply cannot participate once again in something I believe to be morally wrong."
Kitzhaber is a former emergency room doctor who still retains an active physician license with the Oregon Medical Board, and his opposition to the death penalty has been well-known. He was elected last year to an unprecedented third term as governor after eight years away from public office.
Oregon has a complex history with capital punishment. Voters have outlawed it twice and legalized it twice, and the state Supreme Court struck it down once. Voters most-recently legalized the death penalty on a 56-44 vote in 1984. Since then, two men have been executed, both of whom voluntarily gave up their appeals during Kitzhaber's first administration.
Prison officials had been preparing for the Dec. 6 execution of Gary Haugen, who also had waived appeals. Haugen was serving a life sentence for fatally bludgeoning his former girlfriend's mother when he was sentenced to death for the 2003 killing of a fellow inmate, who had 84 stab wounds and a crushed skull.
Kitzhaber said he has no sympathy or compassion for murderers, but Oregon's death penalty scheme is "an expensive and unworkable system that fails to meet basic standards of justice."
Over a three-decade political career, Kitzhaber has built a reputation for charting his own course, sometimes to the frustration of fellow Democrats and others to the chagrin of legislative Republicans.
Kitzhaber's moratorium means Oregon joins, at least temporarily, four other states that have halted executions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Illinois this year outlawed the death penalty after the discovery of wrongful convictions. New Mexico voters abolished it in 2009, two years after New Jersey's Legislature and governor did the same. A New York appeals court struck down a portion of the death penalty statute.
Prison officials said last week that they'd spent $42,000 preparing for Haugen's execution, not including legal fees, including $18,000 spent on lethal drugs.
Prosecutors have long complained that death penalty cases take decades to make their way through the courts, but efforts to change the law have been stymied in the Legislature. Eight condemned inmates have been on death row since the 1980s.
"I do not believe for a moment that the voters intended to create a system in which those condemned to death could determine whether that sentence would be carried out," Kitzhaber said.
Oregon's constitution gives Kitzhaber authority to commute the sentences of all death row inmates, but he said he will not to do so because the policy on capital punishment is a matter for all Oregonians to decide.
Kitzhaber's term ends in January 2015. He has not said whether he'll run for re-election.