Governor out of sync on death penalty

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Frank Thompson, superintendent of the Oregon penitentiary from 1994 to 1998, testified before the Oregon House Judiciary Committee last February to say, “Asking decent men and women to participate in the name of a failed public policy that takes human life is indefensible and rises to a level of immorality.”  His remark was in reference to acting on Oregon’s capital punishment law.  Incidentally, his boss was Governor John Kitzhaber.

Kitzhaber says he regrets “those choices ever since—both because of my own deep personal convictions about capital punishment and also because, in practice, Oregon has an expensive and unworkable system that fails to meet basic standards of justice.”

Further, Kitzhaber noted, “I do not believe those executions made us safer; and certainly they did not make us nobler as a society.”

In the first instance, Oregonians voted most recently to activate capital punishment after the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.  Opinions on the subject vary widely across the country, the leading user of capital punishment being the state of Texas where its 500th execution was conducted in June.

In a recent poll, 79 percent of Texans support the use of capital punishment.  Some readers may remember, that during the 2012 GOP presidential primary debates, when Texas Governor Rick Perry was asked about presiding over 234 executions, the audience applauded enthusiastically.

Meanwhile, here, it’s now argued in some quarters that it’s time for Oregon to disassemble the expensive, elaborate, decades-long process that is set up to sentence people to death but virtually never executes them.  Considering time and trends, we may already have held our last execution in Oregon.   Nevertheless, this issue is not dead yet.

If we continue to practice democracy in Oregon, and the voting majority still rules here, then the choice can be decided again by way of any future ballot measure.  Right now, we have opinion out of the current governor that overrides the will of the people as last expressed and that cannot be considered any more a noble thing than whatever “noble” means to Kitzhaber.

Personally, I do not harbor a lust for blood.  However, I remain dedicated to two views on the subject: one, let us honor the majority through the ballot box and maintain democracy here rather than the will of the governor; and two, should anyone take the life of a member of my family I will gladly volunteer to be trained in and the administration of injection procedures.

I speculate, too, that Kitzhaber would also be a willing volunteer—even if only in his “heart”—if his significant other, his son, or any family member of his, were murdered and the perpetrator found guilty and sentenced to death.  It’s human nature to want a murderer punished by his or her own death and it makes those of us, who may say we prefer otherwise, somewhat suspect.

Further, for example, look at any case where a murderer has taken the life of someone’s loved one. While his religious beliefs may encourage Clinton Heichel not to advocate for the death of Jonathan Holt, the man who kidnapped, raped and murdered his wife in 2012, Holt will now spend his days in a prison, remaining alive to reminisce his horrific deed, possibly for years and years, while Heichel must live with the knowledge that his wife’s killer is lodged and fed at his financial expense.

The bottom line is that Kitzhaber has taken it upon himself to overrule many features of a democratically-decided Oregon legal landscape, including not only the Gary Haugen decision but also the education establishment and multiple other apparently unilateral Kitzhaber-imposed changes based not in law but apparently based on his personal moral code.  Oregonians should demand a reinstatement of what was voted into law.  We’d be wise, also, to find a candidate for governor who obeys the law, not fashioning himself above the law.

(Gene H. McIntyre live in Keizer.)

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