Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber angered prosecutors, victims' families and doubtless many voters this week when he granted a reprieve to all 37 of the state's death row inmates for the duration of his term. In doing so, he committed one of the most courageous and conscientious acts we've seen on the national political stage in some time.
Kitzhaber made his announcement following a decision by the state Supreme Court clearing the way for the Dec. 6 execution of Gary Haugen, who was convicted of killing Mary Archer in 1981 and stabbing a fellow prison inmate to death in 2004. The governor's reprieve disgusted Archer's first husband, Ard Pratt, who told the Associated Press: "It was almost over. And then [Kitzhaber] changes it because he's a coward and doesn't want to do it."
To the contrary, siding with his conscience on a politically unpopular decision (Oregon voters reinstated the death penalty in 1984) took a good deal of courage. Kitzhaber, a former physician, said he'd taken an oath to do no harm and could no longer justify a sentence that is morally wrong and unfairly applied.
Also unhappy with the governor is Josh Marquis, an Oregon district attorney and death penalty proponent. He criticized Kitzhaber for "his outrageous decision to apparently substitute his personal moral opinion for that of the will of the voters and the courts." Kitzhaber did no such thing, though he could have. Under Oregon's Constitution, he is empowered to commute the sentences of everybody on death row, but he left that determination to the voters. Haugen's sentence still stands; he simply won't be executed as long as Kitzhaber is in office (his term expires in 2015). This is the kind of decision voters elected Kitzhaber to make.
Even Haugen isn't too thrilled with Kitzhaber. The inmate voluntarily ended his appeals, just like the other two convicts executed in Oregon over the last 27 years, and was prepared to die. But that points up another problem with the way capital punishment is practiced in Oregon and many other states: It is a sort of assisted-suicide program in which appeals are endless and the only people actually executed are the ones who want to be. Is that justice?
California Gov. Jerry Brown opposes capital punishment, but he says he'll enforce it because that's what voters want. It's a pity he lacks the courage of his convictions, unlike his colleague to the north.