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Oregon governor candidates weigh in on death penalty

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Kristyna Wentz-Graff
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OPB
Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Ore., May 19, 2021. Most people sentenced to death through the Oregon state court system are held here.

In the race to be Oregon's next governor, the Democratic candidate says she’ll continue Oregon’s moratorium on capital punishment, while the Republican and unaffiliated candidates indicate they will revoke it, which could allow the state to resume executions.

For more than a decade, Oregon governors have placed a moratorium on capital punishment, despite a long-standing, voter-approved constitutional amendment that allows the state to kill people convicted of the most serious crimes.

Oregon’s next governor has the power to decide whether to maintain the moratorium of their predecessors, or revoke it, opening up the possibility of the state carrying out death sentences once more.

“As long as the death penalty remains a possibility, there’s always the possibility of an execution,” said Jeff Ellis, director of the Oregon Capital Resource Center, which assists attorneys representing people sentenced to death.

Candidates’ stances

OPB asked all three gubernatorial candidates: If elected governor, would you continue or repeal the current moratorium on the death penalty? Why?

The three candidates responded in writing. Their complete, unedited answers are below.

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OPB Staff
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OPB
The three major candidates for Oregon governor. From left to right: Tina Kotek, Betsy Johnson and Christine Drazan.

Former Oregon House minority leader Christine Drazan, the Republican candidate for governor, indicated she would lift the moratorium, but not approve every execution:

“I am personally opposed to the death penalty, but the death penalty was put in place by Oregon voters. I will follow the law by reviewing cases on a case-by-case basis, which is my duty as governor. Rather than setting aside the law I will act based on the facts and fulfill my duty within the confines of my conscience.”

Former speaker of the Oregon House, Tina Kotek, who is running as a Democrat for governor, said she would keep the moratorium in place:

“Oregon has not followed through on the death penalty in over 25 years, and as Governor, I would continue the current moratorium. I am personally opposed to the death penalty because of my religious beliefs.”

Former Democratic state Sen. Betsy Johnson, who is running as an unaffiliated candidate, said she would allow the state to carry out executions:

“As governor, I will enforce Oregon’s death penalty in cases where a judge or jury deems it appropriate for a heinous crime. Oregonians have twice voted on and affirmed our death penalty. It’s time for liberal politicians to stop trying to overturn it or subvert it by letting dangerous criminals out of prison.”

Death penalty rare in modern Oregon

Recent changes by the Legislature and rulings by the Oregon Supreme Court resulted in fewer people on Oregon’s death row. Since 2019, the number of people sentenced to die in Oregon declined from 28 to 20, according to the Oregon Department of Corrections.

According to Ellis, the actual number is much less.

“The real number of cases where the death penalty is still a possibility or at least is still being debated, is two or three,” Ellis said. “The vast majority, the [Oregon] Department of Justice has conceded, are no longer death eligible cases.”
In Oregon, capital punishment has been both banned and voter approved.

In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in limited circumstances. Voters in Oregon approved a constitutional amendment in 1984, once again adopting capital punishment. Since then, two people in Oregon have actually been put to death. Others have waited for execution dates that never came.

Douglas Franklin Wright, believed to have murdered at least seven people, including a 10-year-old boy, was put to death in September 1996. Harry Charles Moore, who murdered two family members, was put to death in May 1997. Before their deaths, both men dropped further appeals. Moore even gave interviews in the last year of his life arguing that he should be executed.

Former Gov. John Kitzhaber, a medical doctor, presided over both of these executions. During his second stint as governor, he refused to oversee an execution slated for December 2011, saying he would not allow further executions while he was governor. His action started the moratorium that Brown has since upheld.

In 2019, Oregon lawmakers voted to redefine and narrow the types of offenses that constitute aggravated murder, the only charge that carries a death sentence. As a result, capital offenses are limited to people convicted of murdering a law-enforcement officer, carrying out a terrorist attack that kills at least two people, murdering a child younger than 14, or killing someone in prison while serving time for a murder conviction.

Kotek voted for Senate Bill 1013, the legislation tightening the definition of who can be sentenced to die. Without Kotek’s support as Speaker, the bill wouldn’t have made it to the House floor for a vote. Before the 2019 legislative session, Kotek said “any change to the death penalty is a constitutional question to be decided by the voters.” Though, she ended up voting for the bill anyway.

Johnson and Drazan voted against it.

Senate Bill 1013 passed and was signed by Gov. Kate Brown. The new law went into effect September 29, 2019.

While the legislation was not retroactive, a ruling last year by the Oregon Supreme Court found state lawmakers had fundamentally altered “prevailing societal standards” for executions under Senate Bill 1013. The court ruled that it would be cruel and usual punishment to execute a person for a crime that was no longer subject to the death penalty.

Even if the moratorium was lifted, experts say executions would not resume immediately.

“There’s nothing imminent right now,” Ellis said. “There is nobody’s case about to complete all the levels of review.”

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Conrad Wilson is a reporter and producer covering criminal justice and legal affairs for OPB.