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January 25, 2008

A capital reality check from Oregon

A helpful reader alerted me to this very strong article about the state of the death penalty in Oregon from the Willamette Week. Here are some passages from a lengthy piece that's worth a full read:

Oregon’s machinery of death is clearly in place. But since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed states to resume executions in 1976, Oregon has killed only [execution volunteers Harry Charles] Moore and Douglas Wright, who was executed in 1996 for killing three homeless men in a remote area of Wasco County.  Contrast that record with that of Texas, a state that has offed 405 convicted criminals since 1982, making it the No. 1 state for executions.

Oregon’s execution chamber has stood empty for 3,900-plus days—since before Harry Potter became a household name. Meanwhile, 35 men sit alone this week in their cells on Oregon’s death row. The longest-serving inmate, a murderous prison escapee named Michael McDonnell, was sentenced to death 23 years ago. Yet his case, like all the others, remains on appeal.

There are no executions scheduled. “We have a situation in Oregon where nobody but a volunteer gets executed,” says Norm Frink, the Multnomah County senior deputy district attorney who oversees murder prosecutions in the county. That’s because we live in one of 10 states that have capital punishment but have executed fewer than three people since 1976. Experts say Oregon’s next involuntary execution will probably take place around 2012 at the earliest....

Whether you’re for or against capital punishment, you should be outraged by what’s happening. To please the tough-on-crime crowd, we keep the death penalty. But to appease progressives, or to assuage our own conscience, nobody actually gets killed. “Clearly, in terms of quick justice, it’s a system that’s not working,” says Judge Michael McShane, who presides over capital murder trials in Multnomah County Circuit Court.

Yet for the most part, this shameful situation stays hidden. Death row is tucked away on the third floor of a building deep inside the Oregon State Penitentiary. The rarely used execution chamber is behind locked doors in the same prison.  And no executions means no front-page headlines. “A lot of people aren’t even aware that we have a death penalty here,” says Rachel Hardesty, a Portland State University criminal justice professor who has spent a decade studying capital punishment in Oregon....

Oregon remains stuck with a backward system in which the state has the power to kill criminals yet refuses to do so—offending just about everyone who cares about the issue either way.  Irene James supports the death penalty but calls Oregon’s system “senseless.”  A 78-year-old retired schoolteacher from Tualatin, she has endured 113 days in court since her 26-year-old daughter was murdered in 1987, watching serial killer Dayton Leroy Rogers get re-sentenced twice on appeals.  And his case remains years from being resolved. Authorities dubbed Rogers the “Molalla Forest Killer” during the 1980s for torturing James’ daughter Maureen and at least seven other women to death—occasionally sawing off their feet before killing them to satisfy a fetish, then scattering their bodies in the woods of Clackamas County. “It’s not easy,” James says of the endless court appearances. “I’m really resentful about the way it works. I’m resentful, because he keeps coming back.”...

Even though we don’t execute people, Frink considers capital punishment a valuable tool for prosecutors. The threat of death, he says, leads defendants to enter plea deals for life without parole or life with a minimum of 30 years—the two other penalties, besides death, that Oregon allows for aggravated murder.

Fiscal watchdogs, however, say death penalty cases waste millions each year in public-safety money. Common sense says it’s cheaper to kill someone than keep him in prison for life.  But since Oregon keeps convicts on death row for decades—essentially paying for a life sentence anyway—we spend millions on attorney fees moving their cases through a rigorous first trial and long appeals process that are unique to death penalty cases.

January 25, 2008 at 08:34 AM | Permalink


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The issue is not "the state refusing to do so"; it's the judges. Liberal judges, generally speaking, will do whatever they can to thwart the death penalty, the law be damned.

Once again, the folly of Woodson v. North Carolina is laid bare.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 25, 2008 10:40:52 AM

I have to agree that the only disspassionate reason for keeping the death penalty is its use as a negotiating tool. There have been several cases recently where the suspect lead police to a body in exchange for life in prison w/o parole. Although it is not used often (except Texas), I'm not so sure the current system is "broken."

Posted by: TStaab | Jan 25, 2008 10:56:33 AM

Federalist, President Bush has been appointing federal judges for 7 years now. Which of them are the liberal judges you mean?

Posted by: Michael Levine | Jan 25, 2008 12:02:27 PM

There are a lot of Clinton judges still making mischief, see, e.g., Rosemary Barkett. In any event, the problem with Oregon is the state courts.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 25, 2008 12:18:19 PM

federalist, so the problem with Oregon is that state judges are not following what you think the best view of the law is? Man, if only there were some way that the people of Oregon who agree with you could voice their displeasure and hold these judges, who must stand for election, accountable.

Posted by: Confused | Jan 25, 2008 1:03:19 PM

Ok, confused, I'll remember that when someone complains about the Texas judiciary.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 25, 2008 1:36:52 PM

I rise to the defense of the quality of the Texas judges who are elected by the free people of Texas. Remember the immortal words of Nebraska Senator Roman Hruska, who defended Supreme Court nominee Harold Carswell against the charge that he was a mediocre judge: "Even if he is mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance." I admit that we Texans are a mediocre people. But we too have a God-given right to mediocre judges. And I'll shoot anyone who says otherwise. And a Texas jury will acquit me.

Posted by: Fan of Texas | Jan 25, 2008 1:57:34 PM

federalist, there is only one so-called liberal judge on the California Supreme Court, aka, the Left Coast.

How do you explain that?

Posted by: George | Jan 25, 2008 3:14:35 PM

George, your comment is the first mention of California in this thread. How do you explain that?

Posted by: | Jan 26, 2008 10:05:14 AM

Liberal judges are to blame for the execution backlog.
California has a huge execution backlog.
Therefore, California must have liberal judges.


Posted by: George | Jan 26, 2008 12:54:32 PM

This article is wrong. Death Row is NOT on the third floor with the execution chamber. It is on the other side of the prison. Dayton Leroy Rogers did not do what he was convicted of doing. This woman who-ever she is that is whining about her daughter getting killed. Maybe she should have been more of a mother. Her daugher did not suffer. Her daughter was a whore. She turned 20 dollar tricks. Wow what a mom. When parents kick their kids out and to the curb what in the hell do they expect? This woman blames Rogers. He did not kill her daughter like she thinks. The truth of this case is so way differnent that it will shock the world when they get it. Take care of your kids. Don't let them go out and hit the streets. That is only saying that you don't give a damn about your child.

Posted by: Susan | Sep 2, 2008 11:52:19 PM

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