The Oregon Supreme Court has ruled. Gary Haugen will not yet die at the state’s hand.
The court’s ruling seems reasonable. Gov. John Kitzhaber has the authority to grant a reprieve of Haugen’s execution even though Haugen doesn’t want it; and the uncertainty of sitting on death row does not constitute unconstitutional punishment, as Haugen contended.
“Moreover, Haugen cites no case that suggests that a reprieve or other act of clemency qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment,” states the unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice Thomas Balmer.
Yet the greater issue remains unresolved: Should Oregon retain the death penalty?
In 2011, Kitzhaber took a courageous stand. He declared that no one would be executed on his watch, including double murderer Haugen, whose date with death was only weeks away.
Kitzhaber, who during his previous gubernatorial tenure had overseen the state’s two most recent executions, called for a statewide debate on capital punishment.
“Fourteen years ago, I struggled with the decision to allow an execution to proceed,” he said at the time. “Over the years, I have thought if faced with the same set of circumstances, I would make a different decision. That time has come.”
He challenged the 2013 Legislature to reform the death penalty or to end it.
And then he fell silent.
The years 2011 and 2012 passed without any such statewide debate. And now the 2013 Legislature will exit the Oregon Capitol with the state’s capital punishment laws unaltered.
Certainly, the governor had numerous other issues on his agenda, and his aides have said there was little political will among legislators to confront capital punishment. But if the death penalty were as inequitable and repugnant as the governor contended — if sparing the life of a despicable person such as Haugen were preferable to achieving final justice — then Kitzhaber had the moral obligation to carry that case to the Oregon people.
Because on the issue of capital punishment, Kitzhaber is right.
The death penalty is a barbaric act, lowering the state to the level of those who kill in retribution. It is applied unequally, with appeals taking so long that Oregon death-row inmates will not be executed unless they volunteer.
And the alternative, life imprisonment, is such a severe punishment that even an inmate such as Haugen would prefer execution.
Yet capital punishment, or the illusion of it, persists in Oregon.