The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Oregon governor commutes sentences for state’s 17 death row inmates

The execution room at the Oregon State Penitentiary, seen in 2011, will be dismantled. (Rick Bowmer/AP)
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Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) on Tuesday commuted the sentences of all 17 people on the state’s death row, changing their punishment from execution to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Brown said in a statement that she has “long believed that justice is not advanced by taking a life, and the state should not be in the business of executing people — even if a terrible crime placed them in prison.”

Oregon has not executed a prisoner since 1997. Brown was the latest in a string of governors who had committed to a moratorium on the death penalty. She extended the moratorium because the death penalty, she said, is “dysfunctional and immoral.”

Brown, who took office in 2015 and was reelected in 2018, will step down next year at the end of her term limit. Her successor, Tina Kotek (D), has said she will continue the moratorium, citing a personal opposition to the death penalty due to her religious beliefs.

Brown noted in her order, which takes effect Wednesday, that she had also signed into law a 2019 bill that “drastically reduced the circumstances in which a death sentence can be imposed.”

Oregon is among 27 states that authorize capital punishment. Three of those states, including Oregon, have governor-imposed moratoriums, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

“Unlike previous commutations I’ve granted to individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary growth and rehabilitation, this commutation is not based on any rehabilitative efforts by the individuals on death row,” Brown said in the statement.

“Instead, it reflects the recognition that the death penalty is immoral,” she said. “It is 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.”

An execution in 1996, which was the state’s first in more than three decades, cost taxpayers $200,000, according to the state.

Advocates for changing the criminal justice system praised Brown’s announcement. Jamila Hodge, the executive director of Equal Justice USA, said in a statement that the death penalty amounted to “respond[ing] to violence with violence.”

Frank Thompson, a former Oregon prisons superintendent and board member of the group Death Penalty Action, said in a statement that Brown’s announcement “took me by surprise.”

Thompson oversaw the construction of Oregon’s death chamber, which Brown on Tuesday ordered to be dismantled, saying that it was “unnecessary” in light of the commutations.

Thompson said in a 2016 op-ed in the New York Times: “It’s hard to avoid giving up some of your empathy and humanity to aid in the killing of another human being.”

He said Tuesday that he was “grateful to have lived to see this moment,” adding, “If I had one wish, it would be to be there personally to watch when the execution chamber whose construction I oversaw is officially and permanently dismantled.”

Some families of the victims killed by the inmates whose sentences were commuted, however, expressed anger and dismay at Brown’s announcement. Sue Shirley, whose parents were killed by Randy Lee Guzek, one of the death row inmates, told the Oregonian that she was “horrified and outraged.”

Brown said she recognized “the pain and uncertainty victims experience” as inmates waited on death row for years. The oldest effective judgment date was September 1992, according to Brown’s order. “My hope is that this commutation will bring us a significant step closer to finality in these cases,” she said.