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Home arrow Opinion arrow Editorials arrow Let voters decide on executions

Let voters decide on executions


We’re no more impressed today by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber’s change of heart regarding capital punishment than we were when he announced it in November 2011.

But we do agree with the governor on one point: Let the state’s voters decide whether executions should continue to be a possible punishment.

The Legislature is considering a bill — House Joint Resolution 1 — that would take that question to voters in the November 2014 election.

Even supporters concede, though, that the legislation faces long odds.

Voters reinstated the death penalty in Oregon in 1984 by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent. That was three years after the state Supreme Court had ruled capital punishment unconstitutional.

Thirty years is a goodly stretch of time, and with a matter as important as the death penalty we think society, through elections, should reconsider its beliefs occasionally.

We hope, and expect, that Oregonians would reaffirm the death penalty as the proper punishment in a small number of murder convictions.

Although Kitzhaber’s criticisms of the state’s death penalty system would no doubt influence some voters, we’re confident a majority would recognize the flimsiness of his case.

In a recent letter supporting House Joint Resolution 1, Kitzhaber reiterated the charge he leveled in 2011 — that the death penalty in Oregon “is neither fair nor just; neither swift nor certain.” The governor also writes that capital punishment “is not applied equally to all.”

Yet one of the governor’s main complaints — that the only two murderers who have been executed since voters reinstated the death penalty are men, whom he calls “volunteers,” who waived appeals — seems to us a poor reason to oppose capital punishment.

After all, most people would interpret Kitzhaber’s accusation that the death penalty is “neither fair nor just” as meaning minorities are executed at a disproportionate rate, or that there exists some other demonstrable inequity in how executions are carried out in this state.

But it’s hard to see how it’s either unfair or unjust that two out of the 39 inmates on Oregon’s death row — both of them were white men — chose not to continue their appeals (beyond those that are legally required), while all the other inmates accept the full measure of legal protections afforded them.

The evidence in fact shows that Oregon is more circumspect in how it enforces capital punishment than states such as Texas and Florida, where in some years more than a dozen inmates have been executed.

Ultimately, we hope we can trust Kitzhaber to keep his word regarding the voters’ intentions. In his recent letter he wrote that he respects voters’ will; yet in 2011 he thwarted them by blocking the execution of double-murderer Gary Haugen, who wanted to waive his voluntary appeals.

If the issue goes back to voters in 2014, and they reaffirm the death penalty, the exercise will be a futile one if Kitzhaber, or any of his successors, decides the governor’s opinion supersedes his constituents.’

 
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