Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, is currently serving his third nonconsecutive term as Oregon’s governor, and the people of the state have become somewhat used to him by now; at age 66, he knows the job and his two prior terms set up certain expectations when Oregonians re-elected him in 2010 over Republican candidate and former NBA star, Chris Dudley, by a narrow 1.52 percent of the vote.
Yet his narrow victory has only emboldened the third-termer to govern from a more radical position, rather than a more moderate one. During his first two terms, Kitzhaber complied with the policy preferences of the Oregonian people by allowing those on death row to be executed when their dates came due.
In fact, Governor Kitzhaber recently won a victory before the Oregon State Supreme Court that grants him a rather odd right; namely, the ability to commute death sentences to life-in-prison terms, whether the inmate wants his or her sentence commuted or not.
While starry-eyed idealists might imagine that anyone sitting on death row would prefer to live rather than to die, this is not always the case.
Take, for example, the case of Gary Haugen. Convicted of the murder of his girlfriend’s mother about 30 years ago at the age of 19, Haugen’s initial sentence was life in prison; however, his punishment was upgraded to the death penalty four years ago, when he murdered a fellow inmate.
Despite a trial that found Haugen guilty on both counts and came to a legal penalty in the state of Oregon as punishment for the second murder, Governor Kitzhaber sought to commute the death penalty for Haugen to a life term, hoping to spare his life.
Yet an uncommon, but not unheard of, development took place. Haugen didn’t want his death penalty commuted. He preferred to die, and sooner than later.
In an interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Kristian Foden-Vencil, Haugen resents his lawyers for trying to block his desire to die:
“Competency to die. Competency to — you know — they say if you argue against taking the test, if you argue against incompetency, then you’re incompetent. So you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t,” Haugen said.
Kitzhaber’s actions do not permanently take Haugen off death row; it only blocks his execution while Kitzhaber remains in office. The governor’s current term ends on January 12, 2015. Were he to run for an unprecedented fourth term at the age of 68 by then, Kitzhaber could remain in office until at least 2019.
The effect of the Supreme Court decision is that Kitzhaber no longer needs the agreement of the convicts to grant them a reprieve from execution. Instead, murderers like Haugen will remain on the state’s tax rolls indefinitely, even when those prisoners would prefer to die.
Oregon voters have wavered on the death penalty since it was first established in 1903. It was most recently reinstated in 1984, and only two executions have taken place in the state since then, both during Governor Kitzhaber’s first term: one in 1996 and the other in 1997. Kitzhaber has campaigned relentlessly since being elected to his third term to end all death row executions for as long as he’s governor, and also hopes to put the issue before voters again as a ballot initiative.
In the meantime, Kitzhaber continues to flout Oregon law by enforcing his personal policy preferences, rather than accepting the will of the voters to enforce the death penalty.
In a statement released by Kitzhaber’s office, he said:
“I am pleased that the Oregon Supreme Court affirmed my constitutional authority to issue a reprieve. I renew my call for a reevaluation of our current system that embraces capital punishment, which has devolved into an unworkable system that fails to meet the basic standards of justice. I am still convinced that we can find a better solution that holds offenders accountable and keeps society safe, supports the victims of crime and their families and reflects Oregon values.”
Kitzhaber’s values would be more accurate there. Oregon’s values, as proven by the 1984 vote, favor a death penalty.
Other inmates whose desire to have their death penalty carried out have been frustrated by Governor Reprieve include the serial murderer Dayton Leroy Rogers, who claimed at least seven victims in the greater Portland area before he was apprehended in 1987.
Irony underlies Kitzhaber’s position on this issue: he is a pro-choice Democrat, so it could honestly be stated that Oregon’s governor is working harder to save the lives of convicted murderers than he is the defenseless lives of the unborn. Nice values, there, Governor.