Execution forces Portland's faith community to confront death penalty
T. Allen Bethel has met his exception. A gentle and thoughtful man, Bethel is senior pastor of Maranatha Church in Northeast Portland. He and other Portland-area clergy are well aware that on Aug. 16 the state Department of Corrections is scheduled to put convicted killer Gary Haugen to death in the first Oregon state execution in 14 years.
Most members of the local faith community who take up the highly charged issue these days speak out against the death penalty, though there are certainly clergy on both sides.
Proponents and opponents know that the issue is framed differently here because Oregon is also home to physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients.
Physician-assisted suicide essentially allows individuals to say they would rather die than live in circumstances they cannot bear. Haugen went to Marion County Circuit Court to ask that he be put to death rather than live out his life in the Oregon State Penitentiary.
When he considers those two ideas, Bethel, a staunch opponent of capital punishment, says maybe Haugen should get his wish.
'My belief is, I would fight for his life,' Bethel says. 'But each of us has the right to say what I want or do not want done with my body.'
Oregon's lethal injection execution system uses three sterilized needles and takes about six minutes for the combination of drugs to kill the prisoner. The state has used the lethal injection method since Oregon's capital punishment was reinstated in 1984. Prior to that, Oregon executed prisoners for many years in a gas chamber.
Many religious leaders on both sides of the issue see Aug. 16 as an important day. Some see it as a shameful moment. Others see it as justice being done.
Tribune Photo: Christopher Onstott • The Rev. T. Allen Bethel of Maranatha Church in Northeast Portland says he opposes the death penalty, but might make an exception for soon-to-be executed Gary Haugen, who has said he prefers death to spending the rest of his life in prison.
Sanctity of life
Gary Haugen has killed twice. He was serving a life sentence for the 1981 sexual assault and beating death of his ex-girlfriend's mother in her Northeast Portland home, when he was sentenced to death in 2003 for the stabbing to death of a fellow inmate.
Haugen, 49, has released his lawyers, saying he doesn't want to appeal his execution. He's ready to die. But dozens of local religious leaders have joined an organization called Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. They have asked Gov. John Kitzhaber to block Haugen's execution and commute his sentence. The group also plans a ballot measure to eliminate Oregon's death penalty.
Bethel supports those efforts, for the most part. Until six years ago, Bethel says, he found himself supporting the death penalty for a few cases. He has been inside prisons as a chaplain. He has talked to prisoners. His congregation, he figures, has people on both sides of the issue.
But six years ago, Bethel began to wrestle with what he truly meant when he spoke about the sanctity of life, and he came to the conclusion that he had to go all in against executions.
'How do we right a wrong when we can't right the wrong?' Bethel asks. 'Today I advocate for the sanctity of life.'
Choice is another matter. Haugen says he wants to die. Maybe, Bethel says, he should be given his one final choice because maybe it wouldn't be Haugen at all who was truly making the choice. It might just appear that way.
'The kicker for me is this: all of our lives are coming to an end,' Bethel says. 'In my belief, God is the final decision-maker as to when life ends.'
Bethel says he doesn't know one local minister who is for the death penalty. That in itself is revealing, because nationally, recent polls show 62 percent of Americans support the death penalty in murder cases. If the majority of Portland's faith community leaders feel similarly, they are being quiet about it.
On the other side of the issue is Lanny Hubbard, a theology instructor at Portland Bible College and an elder at the charismatic City Bible Church in Northeast Portland. Hubbard is certain a number of local ministers support the death penalty, but most would rather do so quietly.
Churches here have enough trouble maintaining healthy congregations; taking on an issue such as capital punishment could lose them members.
'It boils down to marketing and image,' Hubbard says. 'How does the world perceive us? If they perceive us as irrelevant and hostile, they won't come to our church. They're afraid if they said I am for the death penalty, immediately they're going to be put in a place where that also means they're going to be gay bashers and they're going to light abortion clinics on fire.'
Hubbard isn't shy about explaining his pro-death penalty view. He believes justice and the social order require it be used in 'ironclad' murder cases. Putting the murderer to death, he says, tells society that we value life. Not doing so devalues it, he says, quoting an Old Testament passage calling for public execution: 'So all Israel will hear and be afraid and never again do such a wicked thing.'
'There is a moral balance in the universe that must be maintained,' Hubbard says.
Hubbard's support for the death penalty doesn't extend to the celebrations that sometimes take place outside the penitentiary after an execution, which he calls 'sickening.'
'It should never be vindictive,' Hubbard says. 'It should never be vengeful. The issue is justice, it's not getting even.'
Tribune Photo: Christopher Onstott • Board Chairman Ron Steiner told members of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty last week that the group would try to persuade Gov. John Kitzhaber to commute Gary Haugen's death sentence.
'It's about our values'
That doesn't work for Matt Cato, director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland. The Catholic Church, Cato says, stands against the death penalty, which he says is consistent with its position against abortion and physician-assisted suicide.
'We protect life,' Cato says. 'We're very much against (capital punishment). Just because someone decides to take their life we don't approve of it. In this case, (Haugen) is choosing to die just like someone at the end of life and suffering. We don't believe that's justification for taking a life.'
While Cato suspects local Catholics are fairly evenly split on the issue of capital punishment, the Rev. Lynne Smouse Lopéz, pastor at Ainsworth United Church of Christ in Alameda, says she's pretty sure most of her congregation are against it. As for her personal view, Lopéz says, 'I've always been against the death penalty and always will be, I'm sure.'
Lopéz believes that everyone is redeemable and that putting someone to death denies that possibility.
'What I have to believe is that everybody has good in them,' Lopéz says. 'We are created in the image of God. …We can be broken, but I also believe we can be healed and be made whole. Some people maybe have to be kept away from society to protect themselves and others, but I just cannot give up on them as human beings.'
As for Haugen asking for his own execution, Lopéz admits to equivocation.
'I'd rather we then say, 'It's OK if he wants physician-assisted suicide, but not put to death in an execution.' '
Haugen's case is not an aberration. Two men have been executed in the past 77 years in Oregon (in 1996 and 1997) and both chose to abandon the lengthy and costly appeals process in state courts.
But for Rabbi Michael Cahana of Temple Beth Israel in Northwest Portland, volunteering for execution shouldn't matter. He agrees with Lopéz that government should not be executing people, even as he acknowledges the Jewish Torah is full of instances of capital punishment.
'To extend to the state the irrevocable power of execution is not in line with Jewish theology,' Cahana says. 'It's one thing to say God makes these decisions, an entirely different thing to say human beings do.'
Cahana says despite the biblical executions, Jewish law as it has evolved over the centuries made it so hard to convict somebody to the standard of capital punishment that it was essentially irrelevant.
Imam Mikal H. Shabazz, director of the Oregon Islamic Chaplains Organization, has concerns similar to Cahana. Both have trouble accepting capital punishment in a country where the criminal justice system has been shown to sometimes send innocent convicts to their deaths. But Shabazz is bound by another authority - the Koran - which he says is unequivocal in supporting capital punishment for a variety of crimes, including rape and sedition.
So Shabazz supports capital punishment, but not so much in the United States.
As for Haugen asking to be put to death, he's willing to consider that an exception.
'He (Haugen) is not backing off. He says, 'This is what I did,' and he wants the full measure of the law,' Shabazz says. 'He's saying, 'All I have to give is my life.' I think his right should be accepted.'
Shabazz has a qualifier. Islamic law, he says, gives the family of a victim great latitude in either demanding a murderer be put to death or shown mercy. The family's desire should trump Haugen's wish, he says.
Haugen's last wish, or the wishes of his victims' families, shouldn't come first in the eyes of Tom O'Connor, who was chaplain for the Oregon prison system until 2008.
O'Connor, a Catholic who writes about the role of religion and spirituality in prisoners' lives, has spent a great deal of time with Oregon's nearly three dozen death-row inmates. He says as a rule they are tortured individuals and dangerous. Yet O'Connor calls the death penalty 'inhumane and ineffective.'
Much as the Bible College's Hubbard feels the lack of a death penalty diminishes society's ability to value life, O'Connor believes something nearly the opposite: that the existence of the death penalty diminishes the value of life for those inside our prisons.
Acceding to Haugen's wish to die is giving the inmate a power he no longer deserves, according to O'Connor.
'We're getting sucked into Mr. Haugen's issues, not our issues,' O'Connor says. 'For us as a people, forget Mr. Haugen. This is not about him. It's about us and our values and what kind of society we really value.'