Upside-Down in Oregon: Inmate Wants Execution, Governor Doesn’t


The Oregon Supreme Court is considering a death penalty appeal like no other. The condemned man wants his sentence carried out, while the state’s governor is determined that will not happen on his watch. The inmate, Gary Haugen, has asked the court to overrule the governor.

Haugen has been on death row since 2007, since his conviction for the jailhouse murder of another inmate. The victim was bludgeoned and suffered a crushed skull; he’d also been stabbed. At the time, Haugen was serving a life sentence for beating his girlfriend’s mother to death in 1981.

Two weeks before Haugen’s scheduled execution by lethal injection in 2011, Gov. John Kitzhaber issued a reprieve. Kitzhauber, who opposes the death penalty, announced that as long as he was in office, Haugen would not be executed. Kitzhaber’s current term extends through 2014.

The Supreme Court is not considering the death penalty, per se. This case concerns the limits, if any, on the governor’s powers to issue reprieves and modify death sentences.

Haugen contends he has a “constitutional right” to be executed, and that the governor is violating that right. His lawyer told the Supreme Court justices last week that his client must accept any form of clemency for it to be valid, and that the state constitution “trumps (Kitzhaber’s) moral views.” Oregon’s Solicitor General Anna Joyce argued that only the governor can make decisions on clemency, that the matter was beyond the Court’s reach. “No other branch of government,” she told the justices, “is entitled to question the reasons or the motive.” The court is expected to rule on the case before the end of the year.

Gov. Kitzhaber is a popular politician who has moved into Oregon’s executive mansion twice. He served two terms from 1995 to 2003, and became the first Oregonian ever to be elected governor three times when he ran again in 2011. He has asked Oregon’s legislature to put abolition of the death penalty before the state’s voters. If his push is successful, a referendum would appear on the ballot in 2014.

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