Gov.of Oregon on Tuesday said he would halt the execution of a death row inmate scheduled for next month and that he would allow no more executions in the state during his time in office.
“It is time for Oregon to consider a different approach,” Governor Kitzhaber, a Democrat elected last fall, said in a news conference in Salem on Tuesday afternoon. “I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer; and I will not allow further executions while I am governor.”
Oregon, which uses lethal injection, has executed just two people since its voters approved the death penalty in 1984, and both of those inmates waived certain rights to appeal, making them so-called volunteers. The state, which has 37 inmates on death row, last executed someone in 1997. It has been one of at least seven states that allow the death penalty but have not used it in more than a decade, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
But Oregon’s status appeared likely to change after Gary Haugen, a twice-convicted murderer, waived several appeals and asked to be executed. Mr. Haugen, convicted of killings in 1981 and in 2003, has testified that the death penalty wastes taxpayer money and is unjustly carried out. But in a court appearance in October, Mr. Haugen said: “This is going to be one time where I just don’t do a lot of talking, because I’m ready, your honor. Because I’m ready.”
Outside groups fought to stop the execution, but late Monday the Oregon Supreme Court ruled, 4 to 3, to allow it to go forward. By Tuesday morning, Governor Kitzhaber’s office had scheduled his afternoon announcement.
The governor, a physician who served two previous terms, from 1995 to 2003, noted that he had allowed the two earlier executions to go forward under his watch.
“They were the most agonizing and difficult decisions I have made as governor and I have revisited and questioned them over and over again during the past 14 years,” Governor Kitzhaber said. “I do not believe that those executions made us safer; certainly I don’t believe they made us more noble as a society. And I simply cannot participate once again in something I believe to be morally wrong.”
Noting the length of time many inmates spend on death row, often more than 20 years, he said Oregon had an “unworkable system that fails to meet basic standards of justice.” He said there was a wide sense the death penalty process was flawed but that the state had “done nothing; we have avoided the question.”
“It is a perversion of justice when 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,” he said. “The only factor that determines in Oregon whether someone sentenced to death will actually be executed is that they volunteer to die.”
The governor did not commute the sentence of Mr. Haugen or any of the other death row inmates. He granted Mr. Haugen what he called a temporary reprieve. He asked the Legislature “to bring potential reforms before the 2013 legislative session” and he encouraged “all Oregonians to engage in the long overdue debate that this important issue deserves.”
In all, 34 states allow the death penalty, but only 27 have executed someone in the past decade, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit group that has been critical of how the death penalty is carried out around the country. The annual number of executions nationwide has declined by about half over the past decade.
Gov. George Ryan of Illinois halted executions in that state in 2000, then, as he was leaving office in 2003, commuted the sentences of all death row inmates. The Illinois Legislature banned the death penalty this year. New Jersey abolished the practice in 2007. The New Mexico Legislature ended the death penalty in 2009.
Richard C. Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said that states could be forced into the death penalty debate when inmates volunteered.
“An execution focuses everybody’s attention,” Mr. Dieter said. “It becomes real and people have to decide. And of course the governor has a personal responsibility.”
Governor Kitzhaber said he would be criticized, and he was.
“If the review system is broken such that nobody but volunteers are being executed, the answer is to fix the review system,” said Kent S. Scheidegger, the legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports the death penalty.
Mr. Scheidegger said the authority some governors had to commute or delay death penalty sentences “is given for the purpose of correcting injustices in individual cases. It’s not given for the purpose of negating an entire law.”
Governor Kitzhaber said his decision was rooted in policy and personal views. He noted he had taken an oath as a physician to “never do harm.” Asked with whom he had consulted, he said, “Mostly myself.”