Oregon Should Abolish the Death Penalty

Convicted killer Gary Haugen was sentenced to death in 2007, but Gov. John Kitzhaber has refused to carry out the penalty.

By David McNeil, Guest Columnist to The Oregonian
on May 06, 2014 at 3:00 AM

On behalf of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, let me respond to Oregonian reporter Bryan Denson's April 30 article criticizing OADP's participation in the recent Oregonian poll about the death penalty.

First, thank you to The Oregonian for providing a forum for discussing the death penalty in Oregon. Gov. John Kitzhaber called for a vigorous statewide debate on this issue, and that is what OADP is trying to promote. We welcome the participation of all Oregonians, whatever their views, and we appreciate The Oregonian's help.

We will, of course, continue to make our views known through all available avenues, including The Oregonian’s poll. We are not trying to silence anyone else from making their views known and fully expect death penalty proponents will do so as well.

The fact is, the death penalty is a wasteful and ineffective response to violent crime. We believe that when Oregonians understand this, they will choose to replace it with life in prison without possibility of parole as the most serious sanction for murder. Six other states have done so in the last few years (New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut and Maryland), bringing the total of states without the death penalty to 18. Here are some reasons:

1) The death penalty risks executing innocent individuals. While we do not know that this has happened in Oregon, it is clear that it has happened more than a few times in the United States. It could happen just as easily here.

2) The death penalty system does not identify the worst of the worst for execution. It is entirely arbitrary. Many repeat, even serial, killers, both in Oregon and nationally, receive only life in prison, and many who have killed only once get the death penalty. It just depends on where the crime is committed, what the views and finances of the local district attorney are and whether the defendant is lucky enough to have a competent defense. It is far from fair.

3) It is a terrible waste of taxpayer money. We finance trials that are several times as expensive as non-death penalty trials, and then finance years, sometimes decades, of appeals and retrials. A large proportion of death sentences are overturned on appeal because the initial trial was seriously flawed, making the result unacceptable judicially. The result of this system is that very few death-sentenced individuals are ever executed. It is far less costly to sentence murderers to prison and house them for life than to go through these endless legal proceedings. The money we spend on this ineffectual system could be spent on proven law enforcement and corrections programs that reduce the rate of repeat violent crimes.

4) The surviving family members of murder victims have suffered terrible tragedies. They need the community's most compassionate response and assistance. While some see the execution of the murderer as just and helpful, many do not, especially given that they must wait many years for it, if in fact it ever happens. We should spend our resources helping them, rather than giving them an empty promise that they will feel better in another 15 or 20 years when the murderer is executed.

5) The death penalty fails to deter murder. On average, states without the death penalty have substantially lower murder rates than states with the death penalty. A reasonable conclusion is that the death penalty legalizes and justifies homicide -- the deliberate execution of convicted offenders -- and thus encourages our citizens to think that social problems can be solved with violence. In other words, its overall effect is to encourage rather than deter violence.

Readers should know that all three chief justices of the Oregon Supreme Court who have served since Oregon reinstated its death penalty, and who have had the opportunity to observe the system intimately, have recently come out in favor of repealing it. So have many leaders in the corrections system, and of course our current and several past governors have come to the same conclusion. Oregonians should act now to replace the death penalty with a more effective response to violent crime.

David McNeil is a retired attorney and a member of the board of directors of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty

© 2014 OregonLive.com. All rights reserved.

Convicted killer Gary Haugen was sentenced to death in 2007, but Gov. John Kitzhaber has refused to carry out the penalty. (AP Photo/Statesman-Journal, Kobbi R. Blair)

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