EDITORIALS: "Oregon's Life-or-Death Vote"

A recent editorial in The Oregonian, one of the state's major newspapers, endorsed a bill in the upcoming legislative session that could result in the repeal of the death penalty. The bill, to be introduced by Rep. Mitch Greenlick, would begin the process of amending the state's constitution through a referendum as early as November 2014. The editors wrote, "5 states -- New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois and New Mexico -- have abandoned the death penalty in recent years. Advances in DNA testing, combined with dogged advocacy work, have startled the public into realizing that dozens of innocent people have been wrongly sentenced to die based on faulty evidence and poor legal defense. Oregon has grown more liberal since its last vote on capital punishment about three decades ago, and it's possible to picture Oregon joining the ranks of the abolitionists." Read full editorial below.  

Oregon's life-or-death vote

Oregon's laws on capital punishment aren't meant to be played as games of chess between governors and convicted killers. These laws also aren't intended to create more uncertainty and anguish for the families of victims.

This is precisely why Oregon voters need another chance to vote on the death penalty. Letting the rules change abruptly based on a governor's personal sentiments serves only to undermine confidence in the state's justice system.

State Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, says he will introduce a bill during the 2013 legislative session that would propose a constitutional amendment to repeal the death penalty, as The Oregonian's Helen Jung reported last week. Under Greenlick's plan, Oregonians would vote on the amendment in November 2014.

This potential legislation should be welcome news for everyone who thinks Gov. John Kitzhaber overstepped his bounds last year when he declared a moratorium on capital punishment and derailed the scheduled execution of 2-time killer Gary Haugen. Though Haugen had been sentenced to death under laws approved by the people of Oregon, the governor chose to substitute his own judgment in the case.

Now, Kitzhaber and Haugen are dueling in appellate court over the scope of the governor's authority -- as if the case were John v. Gary rather than State of Oregon v. Haugen.

Executions in Oregon are rare. The state has executed only 3 people in the past half-century, 2 of them during Kitzhaber's 1st term. Kitzhaber, who opposes capital punishment, doesn't want anyone else put to death on his watch. His moral discomfort is understandable and his principles are commendable, yet it's untenable for the governor's temporary moratorium to become permanent public policy: These life-or-death decisions belong to Oregon voters.

So which way would Oregon go?

5 states -- New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois and New Mexico -- have abandoned the death penalty in recent years. Advances in DNA testing, combined with dogged advocacy work, have startled the public into realizing that dozens of innocent people have been wrongly sentenced to die based on faulty evidence and poor legal defense. Oregon has grown more liberal since its last vote on capital punishment about three decades ago, and it's possible to picture Oregon joining the ranks of the abolitionists.

Yet nationally, the public remains supportive of the death penalty -- or at least divided on it -- in polling. California voters just reaffirmed capital punishment in the November election. Also, Oregon has no record of abusing its death-penalty powers, so voters may prefer to maintain the death-penalty option for the state's most remorseless killers.

Either way, Oregon voters need a say in this profound question of justice. This is why Kitzhaber asked lawmakers to introduce reforms -- and why Greenlick deserves credit for promising to lead the way.

(“Oregon's life-or-death vote,” The Oregonian Editorial Board, November 26, 2012).  See Editorials.