Taking a stand

Gov. John Kitzhaber has taken a courageous step that only he could take. He granted a reprieve to death-row inmate Gary Haugen that will prevent Haugen's execution for the duration of Kitzhaber's term as governor.

The governor's action is correct — in fact long overdue — and the Legislature should, as he has requested, take steps to end the death penalty in Oregon once and for all.

Kitzhaber has the power to do what he did under the Oregon Constitution, which says the governor can grant reprieves, commutations and pardons for all offenses except treason. Kitzhaber could have commuted Haugen's death sentence to life without the possibility of parole — and the sentences of all 37 inmates on death row, for that matter — but he didn't, saying that is a decision for all the people of Oregon to make.

Oregonians have been of two minds about capital punishment for the state's entire history, as Kitzhaber pointed out in his statement announcing the reprieve on Tuesday. The original state Constitution did not provide for the death penalty, which was enacted by the Legislature in 1864. Voters repealed it in 1914, restored it in 1920, repealed it again in 1964 and re-enacted it in 1978. In 1981, the state Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional, and it was reinstated the last time in 1984.

The arguments for and against capital punishment are well-known. The pro-death penalty case essentially says the ultimate crime — taking the life of another person — deserves the ultimate punishment.

Among the arguments against the practice are that it is more expensive than life imprisonment, that it is invoked more often against poor defendants and racial minorities, and that it is morally wrong for the government to kill people. All are persuasive.

But the argument that is most compelling to us is the possibility of error.

If the state is to take upon itself the responsibility of executing criminal defendants, it ought to be able to guarantee that no one is ever killed by mistake. That simply isn't possible. And in fact, death-row inmates have been released in recent years when new forensic evidence established their innocence.

No one, including the governor, is suggesting that Gary Haugen is not guilty of the two murders for which he was convicted. He won't, and shouldn't be, released.

But neither should he be killed, despite his declared desire to die by execution. Kitzhaber noted in his Tuesday statement that the only two Oregonians executed in the past 49 years — both during his first terms as governor — had, like Haugen, waived their appeals and essentially volunteered to die.

"Oregonians have a fundamental belief in fairness and justice — in swift and certain justice," the governor said. "The death penalty as practiced in Oregon is neither fair nor just; and it is not swift or certain. It is not applied equally to all. It is a perversion of justice that the single best indicator of who will and will not be executed has nothing to do with the circumstances of a crime or the findings of a jury. The only factor that determines whether someone sentenced to death in Oregon is actually executed is that they volunteer."

That's a strong indictment of capital punishment. Here's another: The death penalty places this country in less than exalted company in the global community.

The United States ranked fifth in the number of executions carried out in 2010. The four nations ranking first through fourth were China, Iran, North Korea and Yemen.

Kitzhaber has declared that Oregon will not be a member of that club, at least while he is governor. Oregonians should follow his leadership and eliminate the death penalty permanently.

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