SALEM, Ore. — Oregon’s complicated relationship with capital punishment takes center stage this week as a House committee takes up Gov. John Kitzhaber’s plea for a public vote on repealing the death penalty.
On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee will hear public testimony on a measure that would ask voters in 2014 whether to insert 10 words in the state constitution: “A sentence of death shall not be imposed or executed.”
The proposal doesn’t seem likely to go very far, especially after voters in California rejected a similar measure last year.
House Speaker Tina Kotek said she wants to see more evidence the measure could pass in Oregon, although she stopped short of ruling out a 2014 vote.
“I think it was unfortunate that California wasn’t successful, and I think that impacted our ability to be successful in the near term,” Kotek said.
Rep. Mitch Greenlick, the Portland Democrat sponsoring the measure, said he believes it would pass, and he’d like to see the measure go forward. Kitzhaber told reporters last month that he’d like to see a vote in 2014 even if polling showed the measure was unlikely to pass.
One Republican, Rep. Bob Jenson of Pendleton, has signed on. He said death penalty cases are expensive to try and to appeal, and forensic evidence has proven the innocence of some death row inmates around the country.
“Once you throw the switch, it’s impossible to reverse those mistakes,” said Jenson said.
In 2011, Kitzhaber issued a temporary reprieve for Gary Haugen, a death row inmate who waived his right to legal appeals and was scheduled to be executed. The governor called for a statewide vote on whether to continue the practice, saying he was morally opposed to capital punishment and was convinced Oregon’s death penalty system was broken.
Haugen is now challenging Kitzhaber’s reprieve, arguing that the clemency is invalid because he didn’t agree to it. A Marion County Circuit Court judge sided with Haugen, and the state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case next month.
Josh Marquis, the district attorney in Clatsop County and a vocal supporter of the death penalty in the most heinous cases, said the legal requirements to impose the death penalty in Oregon are extremely robust to ensure no innocent or improperly represented inmates are executed. The state spares no expense on defending death penalty cases, he said.
“It is rarely sought by prosecutors in Oregon, and it is even more rarely imposed. And I think that’s the way it should be,” Marquis said.
Oregon has 37 people on death row.
The state has a complex history with capital punishment. Voters have outlawed it twice and legalized it twice, and the state Supreme Court struck it down once. Voters most-recently legalized the death penalty in 1984, with 56 percent in favor of capital punishment.
Since then, the state has executed two people, both during Kitzhaber’s first stint as governor between 1995 and 2003. Both inmates, like Haugen, had volunteered for execution, waiving their appeals, and Kitzhaber said that he’d long regretted his decision not to block them.
“I do not believe that those executions made us safer, and certainly they did not make us nobler as a society,” Kitzhaber said in announcing his reprieve for Haugen. “And I simply cannot participate once again in something I believe to be morally wrong.”