SALEM, Ore. — Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber can delay the lethal injection of a death-row inmate who wants to waive his appeals and speed his execution, the state’s highest court ruled Thursday.
The Oregon Supreme Court said Kitzhaber did not overstep his power when he granted a reprieve delaying the death sentence of Gary Haugen, who was convicted of two murders.
Kitzhaber opposes the death penalty and intervened weeks before Haugen was scheduled to be executed in 2011. The governor said he refused to allow an execution under a state death-penalty system he views as broken, vowing to block any execution during his term in office.
Haugen challenged Kitzhaber’s clemency, saying the reprieve was invalid because Haugen refused to accept it. He also argued that it wasn’t actually a reprieve but rather an illegal attempt by the governor to nullify a law he didn’t like.
The governor argued that his clemency power is absolute, and nobody — certainly not an inmate on death row — can prevent him from doing what he believes to be in the state’s best interest.
Kitzhaber has urged a statewide vote on abolishing the death penalty, although the Legislature has shown little interest in putting it on the ballot in 2014. He renewed his request after the ruling Thursday, saying capital punishment “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 said in a statement.
The case involved a sparsely explored area of law — how much power the governor has to reduce, delay or eliminate criminal sentences. The justices had very little precedent to guide their decision, and neither lawyer could point to any other case where an inmate challenged an unconditional reprieve that spared him from the death penalty.
Haugen was sentenced to death along with an accomplice in 2007 for the jailhouse murder of a fellow inmate. At the time, Haugen was serving a life sentence for fatally beating his former girlfriend’s mother in 1981.
Americans and their elected representatives have expressed mixed feelings about the death penalty. Lawmakers abolished capital punishment in New Mexico, New Jersey and Connecticut, but Californians turned down a chance to follow suit at the ballot box last year.
In 2000, then-Gov. George Ryan of Illinois issued a moratorium on the death penalty after numerous condemned inmates were exonerated. The Legislature abolished capital punishment more than a decade later.