SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber on Tuesday imposed a moratorium on the death penalty for the remainder of his term, saying he's morally opposed to capital punishment and has long regretted allowing two men to be executed in the 1990s.
Kitzhaber's decision gives a temporary reprieve to a twice-convicted murderer who was scheduled to die by lethal injection in two weeks, along with 36 others on death row. It makes Oregon the fifth state to halt executions since 2007.
Read Gov. Kitzhaber's full statement
His voice shaking, the Democratic governor said he has repeatedly questioned and revisited his decisions to allow convicted murderers Douglas Wright and Harry Moore to be executed in 1996 and 1997.
"I do not believe those executions made us safer. Certainly I don't believe they made us nobler as a society," Kitzhaber said. "And I simply cannot participate once again in something I believe to be morally wrong."
Death penalty proponents criticized the decision, saying the governor is usurping the will of voters who have supported capital punishment.
A typically cool and unemotional Kitzhaber fought tears as he said he spoke to relatives of Haugen's victims, saying they were difficult discussions and his "heart goes out to them." He declined to discuss them further, calling them "private conversations."
"We've been dealing with this since 1981," said Ard Pratt, Archer's first husband. "It was almost over. And then he changes it because he's a coward and doesn't want to do it."
Kitzhaber is a former emergency room doctor who still retains an active physician license with the Oregon Medical Board, and his opposition to the death penalty has been well-known. In a news conference explaining his decision, he cited his oath as a physician to "do no harm." Kitzhaber was elected last year to an unprecedented third term as governor after eight years away from public office.
Oregon 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 on a 56-44 vote in 1984. Since then, two men have been executed, both of whom voluntarily gave up their appeals during Kitzhaber's first administration.
"It is arrogant and presumptuous for an elected official, up to and including the governor, to say, 'I don't care with the voters say, I don't care what the courts say,'" and impose his own opinion, said Josh Marquis, a death penalty proponent and the Clatsop County district attorney. Marquis has prosecuted several capital cases and written about capital punishment.
Prison officials had been preparing for the Dec. 6 execution of Gary Haugen, who also had waived appeals. Haugen was serving a life sentence for fatally bludgeoning his former girlfriend's mother, Mary Archer, when he was sentenced to death for the 2003 killing of fellow inmate David Polin, who had 84 stab wounds and a crushed skull.
Kitzhaber said he has no sympathy or compassion for murderers, but Oregon's death penalty scheme is "an expensive and unworkable system that fails to meet basic standards of justice."
Over a three-decade political career, Kitzhaber has built a reputation for charting his own course, sometimes to the frustration of fellow Democrats and others to the chagrin of legislative Republicans.
Kitzhaber's moratorium means Oregon joins, at least temporarily, four other states that have halted executions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment. Illinois this year outlawed the death penalty after the discovery of wrongful convictions. New Mexico voters abolished it in 2009, two years after New Jersey's Legislature and governor did the same. A New York appeals court struck down a portion of the death penalty statute.
Politicians are often hesitant to discuss abolishing the death penalty for fear it will anger voters, said Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Kitzhaber's decision might give confidence to leaders in other states, he said.
California is considering a ballot measure next year to abolish capital punishment, and death penalty opponents are also hoping legislators in Maryland and Connecticut will repeal it.
Oregon prison officials said last week that they'd spent $42,000 preparing for Haugen's execution, not including legal fees, including $18,000 spent on lethal drugs. Kitzhaber said he wanted to wait until the legal process played out before announcing his decision.
One of Haugen's lawyers, Steve Gorham, said Haugen was still committed to being executed on Tuesday morning. Gorham said he hadn't spoken with the inmate since learning of the governor's decision.
"I'm sure he's not very happy right now. He was committed to exercising what he thought were his rights," Gorham said, noting that he was personally pleased with the governor's decision and calling it "courageous."
Prosecutors have long complained that death penalty cases take decades to make their way through the courts, but efforts to change the law have been stymied in the Legislature. Eight condemned inmates have been on death row since the 1980s.
"I do not believe for a moment that the voters intended to create a system in which those condemned to death could determine whether that sentence would be carried out," Kitzhaber said.
Oregon's constitution gives Kitzhaber authority to commute the sentences of all death row inmates, but he said he will not to do so because the policy on capital punishment is a matter for voters to decide.
Kitzhaber's reprieve will last until he leaves office. His term ends in January 2015, and he has not said whether he'll run for re-election.
Kitzhaber said he hopes his decision will prompt a public re-evaluation of the death penalty in Oregon and said he will advocate for a ballot measure that would make it illegal. The governor said he prefers murderers be given a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
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Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.
“Under Article V, section 14, of the Oregon Constitution, I am exercising my authority as Governor to issue a temporary reprieve in the case of Gary Haugen for the duration of my term in office. I want to share with Oregonians how and why I came to that decision.
"Oregon has a long and turbulent history with capital punishment. Our state constitution originally had no provision for the death penalty. Enacted by statute in 1864, the death penalty was repealed by voters in 1914, restored in 1920, outlawed again by voters in 1964, re-enacted in 1978, deemed unconstitutional by the Oregon Supreme Court in 1981 and again reinstated in 1984.
"It has been carried out just twice in last 49 years in Oregon. Both were during my first administration as Governor, one in 1996 and the other in 1997. I allowed those sentences to be carried out despite my personal opposition to the death penalty. I was torn between my personal convictions about the morality of capital punishment and my oath to uphold the Oregon constitution.
"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. I do not believe that those executions made us safer; and certainly they did not make us nobler as a society. And I simply cannot participate once again in something I believe to be morally wrong.
"Let me be clear, I had no sympathy or compassion for the criminals or for anyone who commits the most heinous of acts – taking the life of another person. The families and friends of victims deserve certainty that justice will be carried out on behalf of the loved ones who have been taken from them in such a cruel fashion.
"But the nature of their crimes was not different from other murderers, some of whom are sentenced to death but never executed and others who are sentenced to life in prison. What distinguished those two death row inmates during my first term was that they volunteered to die.
"Oregonians have a fundamental belief in fairness and justice – in swift and certain justice. The death penalty as practiced in Oregon is neither fair nor just; and it is not swift or certain. It is not applied equally to all. It is a perversion of justice that 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. The only factor that determines whether someone sentenced to death in Oregon is actually executed is that they volunteer. The hard truth is that in the 27 years since Oregonians reinstated the death penalty, it has only been carried out on two volunteers who waived their rights to appeal.
"In the years since those executions, many judges, district attorneys, legislators, death penalty proponents and opponents, and victims and their families have agreed that Oregon’s system is broken.
"But we have done nothing. We have avoided the question.
"And during that time, a growing number of states have reconsidered their approach to capital punishment given public concern, evidence of wrongful convictions, the unequal application of the law, the expense of the process and other issues.
"Illinois banned it earlier this year, ending a legacy of faulty convictions, forced confessions, unreliable witnesses and incompetent legal representation. New Jersey abolished capital punishment after determining it had spent a quarter of a billion dollars on a system that executed no one. New Mexico recognized that the death penalty is neither an effective deterrent nor fair to victims’ families burdened with lengthy trials and appeals and replaced it with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
"Today, in Oregon, we can no longer avoid the question. Last Friday, a death warrant was signed for another death row inmate, Gary Haugen. And again he has volunteered to die.
"He is just one of 37 inmates on death row today. Some have been there for over 20 years. They all have many years and appeals left before there is even a remote possibility of carrying out their death sentence. Two others have died of natural causes after more than a decade on death row. The reality is that Oregon’s death row is an extremely expensive life prison term, likely several times more expensive that the life terms of others who happen to have been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole -- rather than the death penalty.
"And while it may be convenient to blame lengthy and expensive death penalty trials and appeals on inmates “working the system,” the truth is courts (and society) continue to reinterpret when, how and under what circumstances it is acceptable for the state to kill someone. Over time, those options are narrowing. Courts are applying stricter standards and continually raising the bar for prosecuting death penalty cases. Consider that it was only six years ago that the U.S. Supreme Court reversed itself and held that it is unconstitutional to impose capital punishment on those under the age of 18. For a state intent on maintaining a death penalty, the inevitable result will be bigger questions, fewer options and higher costs.
"It is time for Oregon to consider a different approach. 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.
"I do not make this decision lightly.
"It was the will of the voters in 1984 to reinstate the death penalty in Oregon. I respect that and, in fact, have carried out that will on two occasions. I have regretted those choices ever since – both because of my own deep personal convictions about capital punishment and also because in practice Oregon has an expensive and unworkable system that fails to meet basic standards of justice. Twenty-seven years after voters reinstated the death penalty it is clear the system is broken.
"To those who will inevitably say that my decision today compromises the will of the voters; let me point out that, in practice, it is the current system itself which compromises the will of the voters. I do not believe for a moment that the voters intended to create a system in which those condemned to death could determine whether that sentence would be carried out.
"I could have commuted Mr. Haugen’s sentence – and indeed the sentences of all those on death row – to life in prison without the possibility of parole. I did not do so because the policy of this state on capital punishment is not mine alone to decide. It is a matter for all Oregonians to decide. And it is my hope – indeed my intention – that my action today will bring about a long overdue reevaluation of our current policy and our system of capital punishment.
"Personally, I favor replacing the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole and will argue for that policy in any future debate over capital punishment in Oregon. Others will point to opportunities to speed appeals or change the criteria for death penalty cases. In any event we can no longer ignore the contradictions and inequities of our current system.
"I am calling on the legislature to bring potential reforms before the 2013 legislative session and encourage all Oregonians to engage in the long overdue debate that this important issue deserves. I am convinced we can find a better solution that keeps society safe, supports the victims of crime and their families and reflects Oregon values.
"Fourteen years ago, I struggled with the decision to allow an execution to proceed. Over the years I have thought if faced with the same set of circumstances I would make a different decision. That time has come.”