The latest death penalty drama is playing out in Oregon. On Nov. 22, Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) granted convicted killer Gary Haugen an indefinite reprieve from his scheduled Dec. 6 execution. Kitzhaber announced that he would not authorize any executions as long as he is in office. His term expires in 2015.
Fighting back tears, Kitzhaber voiced regrets for allowing two executions during a previous stint as governor. “I simply cannot participate once again in something that I believe to be morally wrong,” he said.
An Amnesty International official hailed Kitzhaber’s “principled stand.” Oregon’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union applauded the “courageous” action. A New York Times editorial praised the governor’s “firm moral stand.” Opposition came from prosecutors as well as the Portland newspaper the Oregonian, which questioned Kitzhaber’s claim that Oregon’s death penalty system is “broken,” “inequitable” and “compromised.”
Haugen himself has weighed in, albeit with the coherence and consistency that you might expect from someone awaiting execution for murdering a fellow prison inmate.
Haugen had “volunteered” to die by waiving his appeals — his way of protesting the same alleged flaws in the death penalty that Kitzhaber is protesting by sparing him. At first, Haugen praised Kitzhaber; then he changed his mind and told the Salem newspaper the Statesman Journal that the governor’s decision was “a coward’s move.”
I agree with Haugen’s revised view — though for different reasons, I’m sure. Kitzhaber’s gesture is a cop-out, and illogical to boot.
If the death penalty is “morally wrong,” as Kitzhaber says, and if Haugen’s death sentence is the product of a “broken” system, then the thing to do is permanently commute that sentence to life without parole, not offer a reprieve that the next governor might undo. There is no reason to prolong the uncertainty for the prisoners on death row or for their victims’ families.
In fact, why not commute the sentences of all 37 death-row inmates in Oregon? The state constitution gives Kitzhaber that power. One predecessor, Robert D. Holmes, commuted all three death sentences handed down during his tenure from 1957 to 1959. Several governors in other states have done the same.
Kitzhaber said he rejected that option “because the policy of this state on capital punishment is not mine alone to decide. It is a matter for all Oregonians to decide.”
But Oregon’s “policy” on capital punishment includes the constitutional provisions that give governors absolute power to reverse death sentences. Exercising this counter-majoritarian authority would have implemented state policy, not thwarted it.
Kitzhaber said his purpose was to prod the state legislature into a “long overdue reevaluation” of the death penalty. Well and good. But if capital punishment is “morally wrong,” as Kitzhaber says, then what’s the point of reforming it?
Kitzhaber’s main criticism of the Oregon death penalty was that “the only factor that determines whether someone sentenced to death in Oregon is actually executed is that they volunteer.”
It’s true: Both men put to death in the state over the past quarter-century had waived their appeals. For everyone still left on death row, post-conviction litigation drags on. That’s how their lawyers keep them alive.
But this is a strange complaint for a death penalty opponent. If the legislature passes a bill that speeds up executions by limiting due process, will Kitzhaber sign it?
I respect moral opposition to the death penalty, just as I respect support for it, or the view (which I hold) that the death penalty should be retained but substantially reformed and limited.
What no one should respect, though, is a politician’s attempt to take all sides of the issue while washing his hands of it.
Kitzhaber claims to heed both his conscience and the voice of the people. It looks to me as though he is trying to get credit for moral courage without alienating anyone politically. Given that most people don’t share his moral opposition to the death penalty, this is not easily achieved.
Ostensibly brave but actually self-regarding and timid, Kitzhaber reminds me of Maryland governor Martin O’Malley. O’Malley, too, has denounced the death penalty and called, unsuccessfully, for its abolition — but he has declined to back up his words by clearing Maryland’s five-man death row.
With enemies like these, the death penalty doesn’t need friends.