By Jonathan J. Cooper
SALEM, Ore. — 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.
His voice shaking, 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 those executions made us safer. Certainly I don't believe they made us nobler as a society," Kitzhaber said. "And I simply cannot participate once again in something I believe to be morally wrong."
Death penalty proponents criticized the decision, saying the governor is usurping the will of voters who have supported capital punishment.
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. In a news conference explaining his decision, he cited his oath as a physician to "do no harm." Kitzhaber 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.
"It is arrogant and presumptuous for an elected official, up to and including the governor, to say, `I don't care with the voters say, I don't care what the courts say,'" and impose his own opinion, said Josh Marquis, a death penalty proponent and the Clatsop County district attorney. Marquis has prosecuted several capital cases and written about capital punishment.
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, Mary Archer, when he was sentenced to death for the 2003 killing of fellow inmate David Polin, who had 84 stab wounds and a crushed skull.
Fighting tears, Kitzhaber said he spoke to relatives of Haugen's victims. He said they were difficult discussions but declined to discuss them further, calling them "private conversations."
"My heart goes out to them unquestionably," he said. "This decision will delay the closure that they deserve."
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, which opposes capital punishment. 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.
Politicians are often hesitant to discuss abolishing the death penalty for fear it will anger voters, said Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Kitzhaber's decision might give confidence to leaders in other states, he said.
California is considering a ballot measure next year to abolish capital punishment, and death penalty opponents are also hoping legislators in Maryland and Connecticut will repeal it.
Oregon 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. Kitzhaber said he wanted to wait until the legal process played out before announcing his decision.
One of Haugen's lawyers, Steve Gorham, said Haugen was still committed to being executed on Tuesday morning. Gorham said he hadn't spoken with the inmate since learning of the governor's decision.
"I'm sure he's not very happy right now. He was committed to exercising what he thought were his rights," Gorham said, noting that he was personally pleased with the governor's decision and calling it "courageous."
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 voters to decide.
Kitzhaber's reprieve will last until he leaves office. His term ends in January 2015, and he has not said whether he'll run for re-election.
Kitzhaber said he hopes his decision will prompt a public re-evaluation of the death penalty in Oregon and said he will advocate for a ballot measure that would make it illegal. The governor said he prefers murderers be given a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
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