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Gov. Brown commutes sentences of 17 Oregon death row inmates

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By PETER WONG
Oregon Capital Bureau

Gov. Kate Brown has commuted the sentences of 17 inmates on Oregon’s death row to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, effective Wednesday, Dec. 14.

She made the announcement Tuesday as one of her final actions before she leaves office Jan. 9.

When she took office in February 2015, Brown continued the moratorium on executions imposed by her predecessor, John Kitzhaber, in November 2011. Inmate Gary Haugen had challenged Kitzhaber’s reprieve, but the Oregon Supreme Court upheld the governor’s authority to do so in 2013. (Haugen has since changed his mind.)

Oregon last executed someone (Harry Charles Moore) in 1997, when Kitzhaber was in his first term as governor.

Brown called the death penalty “dysfunctional and immoral.”

She also ordered the dismantling of the room at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem where lethal injections were administered to Moore and Douglas Franklin Wright in 1996. They are the only two executions carried out since Oregon voters reinstated the death penalty in 1984. No statewide votes have taken place since then.

Before then, the most recent execution was in 1962 under then-Gov. Mark Hatfield, also an outspoken opponent of the death penalty. Hatfield led a campaign for repeal in 1964, and after voters approved it, he commuted the sentences of the three inmates then on death row, including a woman.

Since the state took over capital punishment in 1903, Oregon voters have twice repealed the penalty and twice reinstated it.

Brown’s full statement follows:

“I have long believed that justice is not advanced by taking a life, and the state should not be in the business of executing people — even if a terrible crime placed them in prison.

“Since taking office in 2015, I have continued Oregon’s moratorium on executions because the death penalty is both dysfunctional and immoral. Today I am commuting Oregon’s death row so that we will no longer have anyone serving a sentence of death and facing execution in this state. This is a value that many Oregonians share.

“Unlike previous commutations I’ve granted to individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary growth and rehabilitation, this commutation is not based on any rehabilitative efforts by the individuals on death row. Instead, it reflects the recognition that the death penalty is immoral. It is an irreversible punishment that does not allow for correction; is wasteful of taxpayer dollars; does not make communities safer; and cannot be and never has been administered fairly and equitably. My action today is consistent with the near abolition of the death penalty that has been achieved through Senate Bill 1013.

(She referred to legislation that narrows the list of crimes qualifying as “aggravated murder,” the only one eligible for the death penalty.)

“I also recognize the pain and uncertainty victims experience as they wait for decades while individuals sit on death row — especially in states with moratoriums on executions — without resolution. My hope is that this commutation will bring us a significant step closer to finality in these cases.”

Reactions were swift from leaders of the Legislature’s Republican minorities.

“Did the people of Oregon vote to end the death penalty? I don’t recall that happening,” Senate

Republican Leader Tim Knopp of Bend said. “This is another example of the governor and the Democrats not abiding by the wishes of Oregonians. Even in the final days of her term, Brown continues to disrespect victims of the most violent crimes.”

House Republican Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson of Prineville said this:

“Her decisions do not consider the impact the victims and families will suffer in the months and years to come. Democrats have consistently chosen criminals over victims.”

But Frank Thompson, who supervised the construction of the death chamber while an official at the Oregon Department of Corrections, said he is glad to hear about Brown’s action. Thompson later became an active opponent of the death penalty and sits on the board of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

“This is a tremendous moment for me,” he said in a statement.

“The death penalty is simply a bad public policy on many levels. It does a disservice to everyone it touches, including the state workers in our Corrections Department whose job it is to carry out executions. No employee of the state should have to take on the burdens that come with killing a defenseless human being.

“These are burdens that I and others like me in this country know too well, and that is why I am among a number of former executioners who have been working to abolish the death penalty in Oregon and across the United States. This announcement took me by surprise today, and I am grateful to have lived to see this moment.

“If I had one wish, it would be to be there personally to watch when the execution chamber whose construction I oversaw is officially and permanently dismantled.”

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