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February 21, 2015

New Oregon Gov pledges to continue curious capital moratorium created by her corrupt predecessor

Images (2)As reported in this new Reuters piece, headlined "New Oregon Governor Kate Brown to extend death penalty moratorium," a change in leadership at the top of the executive branch in the Beaver State is apparently not going to bring any change to the state's current peculiar death penalty practices. Here are the details:

Oregon's new Democratic Governor Kate Brown said on Friday she planned to extend a moratorium on executions that her predecessor enacted in 2011, well before an influence-peddling scandal forced him from office earlier this week.

But like fellow Democrat John Kitzhaber, Brown stopped short of formally commuting death sentences for the 34 inmates currently awaiting execution in the state, which has executed only two people in the past half century, both in the 1990s.  “There needs to be a broader discussion about fixing the system," Brown said in her first press briefing since she took Oregon's helm on Wednesday.  "Until that discussion, I'm upholding the moratorium imposed by Kitzhaber.” 

In a major salvo in the nation's long-running battle over capital punishment, Kitzhaber imposed a blanket reprieve on all Oregon death row inmates in 2011, saying he believed the death penalty was morally wrong.  He had faced growing calls in the waning days of his administration to commute all Oregon death sentences to life in prison before leaving office following an ethics scandal over accusations his fiancée used her role in his office for personal gain.

But Kitzhaber, who has not been seen publicly since announcing his resignation last week, remained silent on that issue, although he did commute the prison sentence of a young man serving time for attempted murder in a non-capital case.

Brown, who had been Oregon's secretary of state before this week, said she met with Kitzhaber on Monday and he advised her of his legislative priorities and recommendations. In addition to her death penalty plans, Brown told reporters she supports raising the minimum wage, increasing transparency and improving access to public records. 

Four years seems to me like plenty of time for the policy-makers and the public in Oregon to have a "broader discussion about fixing the system" used for administering the death penalty in the state. Notably, since Kitzhaber put the moratorium in place, I believe the Oregon legislature has enacted other forms of sentencing reform dealing with prison sentences as well as significant state health-care reforms.  In addition, Oregon public policy groups placed on the ballot in both 2012 and 2014 significant legal reform intended to "fix" perceived problems with marijuana laws and policies in the state.  If the last four years (and a number of election cycles) have not provided sufficient time for Oregonians to have a "broader discussion about fixing the system," I have a hard time imagining that the next few years are likely to engender such a discussion.

In the end, I seriously doubt that the new Oregon governor (or many others in the state) are really looking forward to having a "broader discussion about fixing the system" used for administering the death penalty in the state.  Rather, I think this phrase was the one that the new gov thought would best allow her to duck a controversial, high-profile issue for the time being (and maybe even for the full duration of her term).  For a handful of advocates, death penalty policy and practices in any state are very important, but for most citizens and voters the death penalty is a high-salience but low-significance concern.  Keeping Kitzhaber's execution moratorium in place allows the new gov to focus on other issues without the distorting distractions that death penalty politics can often create.

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February 21, 2015 at 02:25 PM | Permalink


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"New Oregon Gov pledges to continue curious capital moratorium created by her corrupt predecessor"

Prof, the headline jumps the gun a tad. The former governor has not yet been charged with anything at all, much less convicted. As of now ,at least, calling him "corrupt" is unwarranted.

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Feb 21, 2015 4:10:06 PM

I don't think "corrupt" is libel if the person is not prosecuted in a court of law with due process of law. He has been 'charged' colloquially speaking by others. If Prof. Berman wants to state an opinion on a "corrupt" politician who was never prosecuted, that seems fair.

I don't know what the people exactly want to discuss but since the last person executed was in 1997, it is a safe bet that executing people is fairly low as a matter of concern. OTOH, since thirty-four people are currently awaiting execution in the state, there continues to be some desire to sentence people to death. So, there isn't zero concern in at least having a system where you can sentence someone to death in a better way than presently the case.

Posted by: Joe | Feb 21, 2015 7:18:21 PM

Fair concern, Michael, though I have concluded based on the Gov's decision to resign only months after being re-elected that something hinky must have been going on. Would "disgraced" be a more fitting adjective?

Posted by: Doug B. | Feb 21, 2015 7:42:57 PM

Joe, if some accuses you of being corrupt, does that mean you are corrupt?

Is the accusation any evidence whatever of your being corrupt? I think not.

Posted by: Dave from Texas | Feb 21, 2015 9:11:05 PM

Doug, "disgraced" is better

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Feb 22, 2015 1:25:47 AM

"Joe, if some accuses you of being corrupt, does that mean you are corrupt?"

If the accusation is based on sound evidence, it is reasonable to so label. Politicians are regularly called "corrupt" without being prosecuted in a court of law. I was not aware that it was a problem. I find the concern in fact a bit silly.

The word means: "having or showing a willingness to act dishonestly in return for money or personal gain." Every act of "corruption" in this fashion is not illegal.

The idea is a bit perverse. What if the prosecutor is in the governor's pocket etc. so the governor is never prosecuted. Does this mean the person is not "corrupt"? If there is clear evidence someone killed someone illegally, but the person is not convicted because (though the police cannot prove it) they threatened those who would testify, I wonder ... can we call the person a "killer"? After all, no prosecution!

Posted by: Joe | Feb 22, 2015 10:07:09 AM

I would say that while a *mere* accusation is not evidence, when you have reputable media reporting facts that support the idea of corruption, then there is actually some evidence. It may not be enough to convict in a court of law, but, depending on the nature of the evidence, credibility of the source, etc., it may under some circumstances be enough for a conscientious/ethical person to use the term "corrupt" in public discourse.

Posted by: anon | Feb 24, 2015 10:38:55 AM

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