Death penalty opponent sees tough legal fight ahead
A professor at American University made no secret of what he hoped to accomplish on a four-city visit to Oregon this week.
Richard Stack, author of two books critical of the death penalty, wants to move Oregonians closer to abolishing it. Though Oregon is among the 32 states with it, the number that have abolished it grew from 12 to 18 in the past six years.
We have a strategy of picking off a state at a time, he said in an interview prior to a talk at Portland State University. As we add states to the repeal column, when we hit No. 26, we will have a majority that do not have it.
Then, he said, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund will go to the U.S. Supreme Court to argue that the death penalty violates the federal constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment.
Its the only way that some states will fall into line such as Texas, which has executed 515 people since 1982 when current death-penalty laws were in place. Texas leads the states in executions.
Stack, an associate professor of public communication at the university in Washington, D.C., has written Dead Wrong and in 2013, Grave Injustice: Unearthing Wrongful Executions. He also spoke at events in Monmouth, Eugene and Corvallis.
Gov. John Kitzhaber, who let two executions proceed in 1996 and 1997 during his first term, has vowed there will be no further executions while he is in office. His temporary reprieve in 2011 of Gary Haugen, an inmate who sought to waive his appeals and be executed, was upheld by the Oregon Supreme Court last year.
Kitzhabers current term ends Jan. 12, 2015. If he is re-elected Nov. 4, that term will end Jan. 14, 2019.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee took a similar stance on Feb. 11.
Among other potential states for repeal advocates are Colorado, Delaware, Kansas, Montana and New Hampshire.
Oregon voters would have to repeal the death penalty, which since the state assumed responsibility for executions in 1903, voters have repealed twice and reinstated three times. The most recent vote was on a pair of ballot measures in 1984. They were necessitated when the Oregon Supreme Court overturned a 1978 ballot measure on grounds that juries, not trial judges, had to impose the penalty after determining guilt.
Prior to the executions in 1996 and 1997, when Douglas Franklin Wright and Harry Charles Moore waived appeals, the most recent involuntary execution in Oregon was back in 1962.
Lawmakers heard but failed to advance a proposed repeal measure in their 2013 session.
Ron Steiner, who spoke for Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said repeal advocates seek to qualify an initiative measure for the 2016 general election ballot.
Three former Oregon chief justices dating back three decades – Edwin Peterson, Wallace Carson and Paul De Muniz – have announced their opposition to the death penalty, as has Frank Thompson, who as superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary oversaw the 1996 and 1997 executions.
Steiner acknowledges that Oregonians sampled in a straight up-or-down poll say they support the death penalty. But he also said that support softens when they are asked more specific questions about it – including the substitution of a true life-without-release option.
Stack said he got involved in opposing the death penalty almost two decades ago as part of a sabbatical leave he took following the granting of academic tenure. He was doing public relations consulting for Steve Hawkins, then the executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and now has a similar position with Amnesty International.
Stack said two groups were not being heard from. One was a growing list of those convicted and sentenced to death, but who were exonerated because of subsequently discovered errors or evidence. The others were relatives of murder victims who came to oppose the death penalty.
These are people with powerful personal narratives, and whose stories need to be heard, he said.
He said their stories, plus the work of groups such as Project Innocence, have shifted the debate from whether the death penalty deters violent crime to whether government should be trusted to administer an irreversible penalty, given the errors.
Nobody in his right mind wants to see an innocent person executed, Stack said. It destroys the credibility of the system if we are punishing the wrong people.
An Oregon chapter of Project Innocence is underway. Its first executive director will be Steven Wax, the federal public defender for Oregon.
Stack is working with a producer on a documentary film to accompany his book Grave Injustice. He said among the viewpoints it will include are those of a former state executioner, the parents of a murder victim, and a woman spectator injured in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
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Its still killing
The death penalty received renewed national attention April 29 when a botched lethal injection in Oklahoma eventually resulted in the death of the inmate 43 minutes later.
Richard Stack, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., said universities and other research institutions are required to lay out their testing procedures before they can administer a variety of experiments.
What Oklahoma did would not pass muster with an institutional review board, he said, either with the kind of drugs or amounts administered which can be secret or the people assigned to carry out the execution.
Drug manufacturers and medical doctors are increasingly disassociating themselves from lethal injections, Stack said, even though such injections were developed in the late 1970s as an alternative to the electric chair, gas chamber or firing squad.
Gary Gilmore, the first to be put to death after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume in 1976, died at the hands of a firing squad in Utah in 1977.
The high court upheld Kentuckys bid to use a single drug, instead of a three-drug mix, in lethal injections in a 2008 case.
But the court should not be asking how we do it, Stack said. It should be asking: Should we do it? No matter how much we move to make it a more humane way of killing, its still killing.
Nevertheless, Stack said, he thinks the recent attention will result in a slowdown in executions.