On Oregon's death row, trying to die with dignity

By Jayson Jacoby July 29, 2011 05:41 pm

It’s a lot easier to kill yourself in government-approved fashion in Oregon if you’re a terminal cancer patient than if you’re a convicted double murderer.

Which seems to me a curious situation to prevail in a state that doesn’t trust people to handle certain other, rather less vital tasks.

Pumping fuel into our cars, for instance.

It’s not that I expect Oregon to treat a person on death row, and one who’s at death’s door, as identical cases.

That would be inappropriate, even a trifle silly.

And yet, the ongoing case of Gary Haugen has prodded me to ponder how drastically different the experiences can be for Oregonians whose ultimate goal is the same: to die.

Haugen is a 49-year-old inmate at the State Penitentiary.

He pleaded guilty to murdering Mary Archer, his former girlfriend’s mother, in 1981. Haugen was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

While in prison he was convicted of helping another inmate murder a third inmate, David Polin, in 2003.

For that crime Haugen was sentenced to death.

Haugen has repeatedly told judges that he wants to waive the appeals to which he is legally entitled, and to be executed as soon as possible.

But this spring Haugen’s two court-appointed lawyers testified that a psychologist had diagnosed Haugen as delusional.

In response, the Oregon Supreme Court canceled his scheduled Aug. 16 execution and ordered Haugen to undergo another mental health evaluation.

Haugen then fired the two attorneys.

“They want me to rot in prison,” Haugen told a judge. “It’s laughable to pretend they are serving my legal interests while clearly they are opposed to my right to die with dignity.”

I have no idea whether Haugen chosen those last three words intentionally.

But it’s interesting that he spoke them.

Death with Dignity is the official title of the 1994 state ballot measure legalizing physician-assisted suicide. Oregon voters approved that measure by a margin of 51 percent to 49 percent, making this state the first to enact such a law.

Three years later voters, apparently indignant over having their judgment questioned, defeated a measure, referred to voters by the Legislature, to repeal the 1994 law. The margin was much healthier, too, with 60 percent voting to retain the Death with Dignity law.

The Bush administration later challenged the law but in 2006 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it by a 6-3 decision in the Gonzales v. Oregon case.

Since 1998 about 530 Oregonians have ended their life by taking a medication they had asked their doctor to prescribe.

Although I’m troubled by the law because it gets physicians, who pledge an ancient oath to heal, involved in helping people kill themselves, I think the law should stay.

This is supposed to be a free country, after all.

And a majority of Oregon voters have twice confirmed that, as regards suicide, the wishes of terminally ill patients ought to supersede the unsettling feeling that I, and others, have about the matter.

Also, I’m satisfied that the law’s requirements are stringent enough to ensure that anyone who avails himself of it will do so only after considerable and sober contemplation.

For instance, you must have been diagnosed, by two doctors, with an illness that will kill you within six months. And you have to ask the doctor, in person, for a lethal prescription at least twice, with a minimum of 15 days between requests.

Either of the two physicians who made the terminal diagnosis can require the patient to submit to a psychological examination.

And the original diagnosing doctor must tell the patient about alternatives such as hospice care and pain control.

Suffice it to say that the Death With Dignity law doesn’t entitle you, should you have a row with your boss and get fired, to phone up your neighborhood clinic and walk out of a pharmacy half an hour later with a vial of barbiturates.

Haugen, of course, would not qualify under the Death with Dignity law because he doesn’t suffer from a terminal disease.

On the other hand, none of those 530 Oregonians who procured a fatal dose from a physician was a double-murderer who had been sentenced to death.

Moreover, Haugen was sent to death row under the auspices of a law that, like Death with Dignity, Oregon voters chose to enact.

In 1978, Oregonians, 14 years after they voted to abolish the death penalty, reversed themselves and reinstituted capital punishment. Measure 8 passed by a margin of 64 percent to 36 percent.

The state Supreme Court invalidated that measure in 1981 because it allowed a trial judge, not a jury, to impose a death sentence.

In 1984 voters approved a new measure to legalize capital punishment, by a vote of 55 percent to 45 percent. That law remains in effect.

During the ensuing 27 years, two inmates have been executed in Oregon, the first in 1996 and the second in 1997.

The bottom line, then, is that a majority of Oregonians, the last time we took up the matter in a democratic manner, decided that people who commit the sort of act for which Haugen was convicted deserve to die.

And Haugen, as 530 of his fellow citizens have already done, wants to die, as he himself put it, “with dignity.”

Yet he’s having a hard time of it — harder, it seems, than those hundreds of other people who, unlike Haugen, surely didn’t deserve their unfortunate fate and were not condemned to death by their society.

Perhaps this is as it should be.

I certainly don’t object to society affixing rigorous standards to the practice of state-sponsored execution.

Among government actions it is one in which mistakes are singularly difficult to correct, after all.

Except in Haugen’s case, unlike others that death penalty critics cite, there is no dispute as to his guilt.

He hasn’t denied either murder. He pleaded guilty to the 1981 killing that put him in prison initially.

And in neither of his trials was he found to have mental deficiencies that precluded him from standing trial.

In short, he has cleared the same psychological hurdles that Oregon law has raised for terminal patients who want to end their lives.

Strangely enough, it seems to me that Haugen’s biggest problem now is not that he’s a killer who has spent 30 of his 49 years in prison.

His life would be easier, as it were, and quite possibly shorter, if he came down with an advanced, incurable case of cancer.

Which is not something you typically hope for.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.