Former Gov. John Kitzhaber is the most prominent voice against Oregon's death penalty, but he says repeal is a step toward a greater goal.
"Not only do we want to repeal the death penalty, I think it is equally important we are cognizant of those social factors and risks that lead people into a life of crime in the first place," Kitzhaber said last week (Aug. 24) at the annual meeting of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
Kitzhaber, who in his third term in 2011 instituted Oregon's current moratorium on executions, spoke just before the group launched the "One Million Conversations" project.
The group wants to encourage one-on-one conversations before it seeks repeal at a future statewide election.
Tom O'Connor, a former research manager and head chaplain for the Oregon Department of Corrections, said the project's goal is to promote dialogue and not provoke an already heated debate.
"It's about the emergence of meaning. It means there are no winners or losers, because the meaning of dialogue is common to everybody," said O'Connor, who now leads Transforming Corrections, which seeks to promote alternatives to simple punishment.
"It's the kind of thing I think we need if we are going to move in this arc toward life."
Ron Steiner, the group's chairman, said death penalty opponents have not yet amassed the support they will need in a statewide campaign.
"We hope to repeal it before we get a governor who thinks otherwise," he said.
Oregon's current death penalty dates back to 1984. Voters have gone back and forth on it since the state took over responsibility for executions in 1903. According to the Oregon Department of Corrections, 33 men and one woman sit on death row as of Jan. 19.
Oregon is one of 31 states with the death penalty — and four where governors have declared a temporary halt to executions.
Moratorium and more
Oregon's only two recent executions occurred during Kitzhaber's first term as governor in 1996 and 1997, when he let them proceed despite his personal opposition to the death penalty.
Kitzhaber described his reversal on Nov. 22, 2011, when he granted a temporary reprieve to Gary Haugen and imposed a moratorium on executions carried over by his successor, Kate Brown.
"It was the right thing to do. It was what I should have done 20 years ago. I didn't, and I can't change that," Kitzhaber said to an audience of more than 50 at Bethel Congregational United Church of Christ in Beaverton.
"I am here tonight because I want to do all I can to help you and other like-minded Oregonians have a good honest debate about this and find alternatives to the death penalty. But there is more to it that that."
When Kitzhaber won his first term in 1994, Oregon voters also approved a ballot measure setting mandatory minimum prison sentences for 16 (now 21) violent and serious sex crimes. Measure 11 was the impetus for a prison construction program that more than doubled Oregon's inmate population now topping 14,000.
"The real tragedy to me was that the building and operation of those prisons sucked all the money out of a robust juvenile crime prevention and early childhood intervention package I funded in my first budget," he said.
"It is clear that what our society does is systematically pulls money out of investments that could prevent crime and gives it to incarcerate people who commit crimes.
"I want to know why it is not cruel and unusual punishment to condemn millions of children to lives of poverty and economic struggle and hardship, simply because we refuse to make the family investments that would improve their lives."
How he felt then
For the first time in public — the other occasion was at a symposium March 16 at Willamette University law school in Salem — Kitzhaber talked about his feelings before the September 1996 execution of Douglas Franklin Wright and the May 1997 execution of Harry Charles Moore. They were the first Oregon executions since 1962, and both waived appeals.
Wright was convicted of the murders of three homeless men, and admitted to the killing of a 10-year-old boy later. Moore was convicted of the murders of his half-sister and former husband.
"There is no question these men did horrible things," he said. "I had no compassion for them. I had tremendous compassion for their families."
Both times he sat in his Capitol office late at night, one phone line connected to the attorney general and the other line to the Oregon State Penitentiary, where the executions were scheduled.
"I spent most of my adult life saving lives," said Kitzhaber, an emergency room physician for 24 years. "For the past six months, I stood by while the state took two.
"I doubt that anyone can really understand until you sit by yourself in your office in the middle of the night and allow an execution to go forward, knowing that you are the only person in the world who can stop it.
"I was struggling at the time between what I thought was my responsibility to uphold the Constitution, which clearly endorses the death penalty, and my own personal opposition to capital punishment. My decision to uphold the Constitution made it seem clear, but it did not make it easy."