In her final weeks in office, Gov. Kate Brown is commuting the sentences of those on death row and dismantling the state execution chamber in an effort to effectively end capital punishment in Oregon.
“I’ve been very clear to Oregonians I’m opposed to the death penalty because it’s both dysfunctional and immoral,” Brown said in an interview with OPB.
Brown will commute the sentences of 17 individuals on death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole, effective Wednesday.
The governor’s decision is the latest in an ongoing effort by Democratic lawmakers to stop executing people.
“The death penalty has never been administered fairly or equitably in Oregon,” Brown said. “And in fact, it’s been quite arbitrary. And that is not how a criminal justice system should work.”
Brown, who has used her power of clemency more than any of the state’s previous governors, said for the other commutations she cited personal growth as part of the reason for reducing a person’s sentence. This time, Brown said, the decision is solely based on her belief that the death penalty is immoral and a waste of taxpayer dollars that does not make communities any safer.
The governor said the Oregon Department of Justice’s victim advocate team has been reaching out to victims and their families to notify them of her decision. Brown said the families will also be told how to reach out to her office directly.
“I have no way of knowing how to walk in these victims’ and their families’ shoes,” she said. “What has happened to them, their families has been brutal and horrific and appalling. My heart just aches for them. At the same time, it is immoral for the state to be in the business of executing people.”
Some of the people who were currently awaiting execution include Christian Longo, who was sentenced to death in 2003 after killing his wife Mary Jane and their three children. Bruce Turnidge and his son Joshua Turnidge who were responsible for the 2008 Woodburn bombings that killed police Capt. Tom Tennant and Oregon State Police Trooper William Hakim, and Jesse Compton, who killed Tessylnn O’Cull, a 3-year-old girl in 1997.
The death penalty has nearly been abolished in the state of Oregon, by both law and practice. Then-Gov. John Kitzhaber opted to stop enforcing the death penalty in 2011, and Brown has continued that moratorium.
In 2019, state legislators redefined the crime of aggravated murder, the only offense punishable by death in Oregon. With Senate Bill 1013, lawmakers narrowed the scope of what constituted a capital offense applying it to murders of children younger than 14, murders of law-enforcement officers, terrorist attacks that kill at least two people and prison killings carried out by someone who had previously been convicted of murder.
Later, in 2020, the Oregon Department of Corrections dissolved death row, moving the inmates to general populations and other housing units in the state’s six maximum security prisons.
The state has executed two death row inmates in the past 50 years; the last person executed in Oregon was Harry Moore in 1997.
Capital punishment, however, remains in the state Constitution and cannot be removed without a public vote. Gov.-elect Tina Kotek told OPB during the election that she was opposed to the death penalty due to her religious beliefs. Brown said she felt confident Kotek, also a Democrat, is aligned with her views on the death penalty, but a future governor could reverse Brown’s removal of the execution chamber.
The governor said she is not sure what will happen to the rarely-used room designated to execute people at the Oregon state penitentiary, but she said it will be repurposed.
Aliza Kaplan, director of the criminal justice reform clinic at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, applauded the governor’s decision.
“If our criminal legal system is about public safety, there’s absolutely no public safety risk in this decision,” Kaplan said. “So while people might not agree with it, as with any decision a public figure makes, there’s absolutely no risk to public safety.”
But Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp, of Bend, said it should be up to voters to decide whether to repeal the death penalty.
“Did the people of Oregon vote to end the death penalty? I don’t recall that happening,” Knopp said. “This is another example of the governor and the Democrats not abiding by the wishes of Oregonians.”
Clackamas County District Attorney John Wentworth said Brown continues to “trample” on the rights of crime victims.
”Murderers will celebrate Christmas with the certainty of life while their victims’ families will spend Christmas Day without their loved ones or the justice they deserve,” Wentworth said.
Brown has used her clemency powers to either pardon or commute sentences more than any other governor in the state’s history. Pardons forgive someone who has committed a crime, while commutations change their sentence, often releasing them earlier than what was decided in their original trial.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, she commuted and thus released the sentences of 963 incarcerated adults to prevent the spread of the virus. The people whose sentences she commuted were deemed medically vulnerable, within a couple months of their release date or did not appear to create an unacceptable public safety risk in the governor’s estimation.
Brown also commuted the sentence of 43 incarcerated individuals who helped fight wildfires during a time when wildfires ravaged the state. She also commuted the sentences of 73 juvenile offenders. In November, Brown granted more than 47,000 pardons to people who had a possession of one ounce or less of marijuana on their records.
“We are a nation of second chances,” Brown said this week.