EDITORIAL: Time to revisit death penalty

Written by Observer editorial January 24, 2014 10:46 am

For most of Oregon’s history, the state has offered capital punishment as a deterrent for the most heinous of criminals. An eye for an eye and all that.

The first execution took place in 1851 under the eye of the territorial government, and in the last 110 years, some 60 individuals have been executed in the state.

But now, it seems, the state has become ambivalent about using the system. When it stares death in the face, the state becomes queasy. Thirty-four men and one woman linger on death row. The last execution, by lethal injection, took place in 1997.

Now, 17 years later, one death row inmate, convicted murderer Gary Haugen, is seeking to force his own execution. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, refused to consider the case.

Gov. John Kitzhaber has expressed his dissatisfaction with capital punishment. In fact, in November 2011, he announced a moratorium on executions and ordered a review of the death penalty system. He said he won’t allow executions as long as he is governor, calling capital punishment “morally wrong” and not in line with basic justice standards.

There are many strong arguments against the death penalty. Foes say it is cruel, hypocritical and does not prevent crimes except for those that may have been committed by the person executed. What’s more, life in prison, they say, is more hell than cakewalk and is adequate punishment.

There are just as many strong arguments for the death penalty. Proponents say taking a life deserves giving one’s own life. The death penalty, they say, gives would-be criminals the ultimate warning. They also note that capital punishment can give victims and their families and friends the ultimate closure.

Today, under Oregon law, aggravated murder is the only crime subject to the death penalty. 

Oregon needs to decide if it is a capital punishment state or not. Oregon has lived  without capital punishment from 1914 to 1920, from 1964 to 1978 and from 1981 to 1984. Studies in state after state show that maintaining a death row costs far more than giving prisoners life sentences without chance of parole. Perhaps voters need to revisit the 1984 ballot measure that gave capital punishment the green light and reconsider whether the extra costs of a death row are worth the investment.