Moral Low Ground

Society

‘The Moral High Ground’: Oregon Governor Dr. John Kitzhaber Declares Moratorium on Executions

Calling capital punishment “a perversion of justice,” Oregon’s governor has declared a moratorium on executions.

According to The Oregonian, Gov. John Kitzhaber, who had been torn between his physician’s oath to do no harm and his governor’s oath to enforce state laws, has had enough of the injustice of capital punishment.

“In my mind, it is a perversion of justice,” he said at a news conference announcing the moratorium. “I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer and I will not allow further executions while I am governor.”

Kitzhaber implored Oregonians to “find a better solution” to capital punishment, which he said “fails to meet basic standards of justice.” He also decried the cost and arbitrary nature of the state’s death penalty system.

His decision has an immediate impact on death row inmate Gary Haugen, scheduled to be executed on December 6 for the 2003 murder of fellow Oregon State Penitentiary inmate David Pollin. Kitzhaber has granted Haugen a temporary reprieve that will last as long as he remains governor. Haugen was already serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for the brutal murder of Mary Archer, who he beat to death with his fist, a baseball bat and a roofing hammer in 1981 because she urged her daughter– Haugen’s ex-girlfriend– to have an abortion. Haugen was 19 at the time.

Oregon’s capital punishment system is bizarre to say the least: only those death row inmates who volunteer get executed. Interestingly, Haugen did volunteer to die. His attorney, Steven Gorham, told The Oregonian that the governor’s decision will probably come as a great disappointment for Haugen, who viewed his volunteering for execution as a political protest and a way out of death row.

Kitzhaber has presided over two previous executions: Douglas F. Wright was the first person to be killed by lethal injection in Oregon in 1996; Harry C. Moore was put to death the following year.

“They were the most agonizing and difficult decisions I have made as governor,” Kitzhaber said of those executions. “I have regretted those choices ever since.”

The governor’s moratorium has predictably angered many, including family members of Haugen’s victims. “We are again just plain devastated,” Ard Pratt, Mary Archer’s ex-husband told The Oregonian. “This is such a miscarriage of justice. This whole thing is just wrong.”

“The governor showed moral courage when he allowed the last two executions to occur despite his opposition,” Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis told The Oregonian. “When you’re the governor of the state and the law is X… it is your duty to carry it out,” he added.

Kitzhaber acknowledged the dissatisfaction that many Oregonians feel about his decision. He contacted victims’ families before yesterday’s press conference. “Unquestionably, this decision will delay the closure that they deserve,” he conceded. “My heart goes out to them.”

Oregon now becomes the fifth state to cease executions in recent years. New York, New Jersey, New Mexico and Illinois have done so since 2004. Nationally, the number of executions has dropped from 98 in 1999 to 46 in 2010, with the number of people being sentenced to death down 60% since the 1990s.

There are 37 inmates on Oregon’s death row today.

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