Oregon legislator prepares death-penalty repeal bill, as anniversary of execution moratorium approaches

Rep Mitch Greenlick during the 2012 legislative session

November 20, 2012

When Gov. John Kitzhaber declared a year ago that he would block any executions as long as he's governor, he also challenged legislators to help turn the moratorium into law.

The system is inequitable and immoral, said Kitzhaber, who made the announcement when he halted a pending execution for two-time killer Gary Haugen. "I am calling on the Legislature to bring potential reforms before the 2013 legislative session and encourage all Oregonians to engage in the long overdue debate that this important issue deserves," he said.

It's an invitation that state Rep. Mitch Greenlick, a longtime opponent of capital punishment, is happy to accept.

Continuing coverage of Gary Haugen, an Oregon death row prisoner, who wants to initiate the execution process. Gov. John Kitzhaber blocked his execution and all others in Oregon.Greenlick plans to introduce a bill that would propose a constitutional amendment to repeal the death penalty, replacing it instead with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

If legislators pass the bill, the proposed amendment would then go to a vote by Oregonians in the 2014 general election. Voters must approve a constitutional amendment by a simple majority.

"How can we not be concerned with it?" said Greenlick, D-Portland. The death penalty is expensive to maintain, particularly considering that Oregon rarely executes those sentenced to die, he said.

"Eventually (voters) are going to understand that this is either a fiscally correct thing to do or a morally correct thing to do," he said.

Kitzhaber, in a statement through his spokesman, said he applauds Greenlick and is "confident he can find bipartisan support."

Still, Greenlick faces a tougher road than legislators in Illinois, Connecticut and other states where they could abolish the death penalty without having to put the question to voters. In Oregon, voters decided in 1981 to amend the constitution to allow for the death penalty, and they are the only ones who can reverse it.

Although death-penalty opponents welcome the debate, some worry that a recent defeat in California signals trouble for abolition efforts in Oregon. Just two weeks ago, voters in California soundly defeated Proposition 34, which would have replaced the death penalty in their state with life in prison without parole. The measure failed 53 percent to 47 percent.

"Obviously, California's not Oregon and Oregonians don't necessarily follow the lead of Californians," said David Fidanque, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Oregon, which opposes the death penalty. "But it would have been a boost for our efforts had the measure in California passed. There's no two ways about it."

Some abolitionists feel that a public vote in 2016 rather than 2014 might work better, Fidanque said, giving advocates more time to convince voters that life in prison without parole is an effective and cheaper option than death. And Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, who opposes the death penalty, said he would prefer that a work group closely study the issue between legislative sessions to deliberate on the various legal, moral and other implications before legislators take up a repeal bill.

Rushing the issue could ultimately hurt repeal efforts, he said, if voters aren't given all the information they need to make a decision on such a controversial topic.

"To me, as much as some people are very adamant and wanting to do this immediately, I think timing is one of those things you have to take into consideration, especially with a referral of a highly charged issue such as abolishing the death penalty."

Members of the press were given a tour and briefing regarding death row procedures in Oregon.Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian

Josh Marquis, the district attorney for Clatsop County and a death penalty supporter, maintains that Oregonians will reject abolishing the death penalty. He noted the failure in California despite the millions of dollars spent on the campaign and its backing by Hollywood celebrities. "This was a huge loss for the anti-capital punishment movement," he said.

But Ron Steiner, chairman of the board of abolition group Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, holds out hope.

Oregonians have repealed the death penalty before, most recently in 1964. And it's been nearly 30 years since the 1981 vote in which Oregonians approved reinstating capital punishment, he said. Today's voter base now includes many people who have never had the opportunity to cast their ballot on whether the death penalty is appropriate, he said.

Greenlick, who was first elected to his seat in 2002, doesn't want to wait any longer. "I can't serve six sessions in the Legislature without taking a swing at it," he said. "I don't know what we are waiting for."

--Helen Jung



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