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In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning

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To cope with his dread, John Kitzhaber opened his leather-bound journal and began to write.
It was a little past 9 on the morning of Nov. 22, 2011. Gary Haugen had dropped his appeals. A Marion County judge had signed the murderer's death warrant, leaving Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, to decide Haugen's fate. The 49-year-old would soon die by lethal injection if the governor didn't intervene.
Kitzhaber was exhausted, having been unable to sleep the night before, but he needed to call the families of Haugen's victims.
"I know my decision will delay the closure they need and deserve," he wrote.
The son of University of Oregon English professors, Kitzhaber began writing each day in his journal in the early 1970s. The practice helped him organize his thoughts and, on that particular morning, gather his courage.
Kitzhaber first dialed the widow of David Polin, an inmate Haugen beat and stabbed to death in 2003 while already serving a life sentence fo…

The First Time Texas Killed One of My Clients

Texas Death Row, Polunsky Unit, Livingston, Texas
Texas Death Row, Polunsky Unit, Livingston, Texas.View of the Death
Row building from within the perimeter fence (more photos here).
An attorney pieces together a life cut short.

Marvin was the first of my clients to be killed by the state of Texas.

Shortly after I joined Marvin’s legal defense team, my colleague Kate took me to meet him on Texas’ death row. We sat in the visitation booth, separated from Marvin by a pane of glass. He spoke to us through a crackly telephone, elbows on the metal table in front of him. He wore a white uniform. 

Kate and I talked with Marvin about football. She loved the Broncos and he loved the Texans. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of sports, and listened to them every day on his prison radio. Beyond sports, I did not know how to speak with him. 

He answered my questions with one-word answers. He had no interest in his legal proceedings. He shrugged when Kate talked to him about the execution date, just a few months away. 

When he was not yet old enough to buy beer, Marvin committed a multiple homicide. The jury that sentenced Marvin to death knew nothing about him, except that he had caused permanent chaos and wreckage in the lives of innocent people.

Marvin’s jury never heard about his childhood. His trial lawyers assumed he had been raised by good parents. It was only later, during Marvin’s appeals, that attorneys met with his family and unearthed his story. (The names of my client and his family have been changed to protect lawyer-client confidentiality, which does not end at the grave.)

Marvin’s mother, Mary, grew up in a poor black family in rural Texas. Mary’s mother murdered Mary’s father while Mary and her siblings were in the house. Mary watched her mother pull the trigger. Mary’s brothers and sisters scattered, sent to live with relatives who could take them. Mary moved to a housing project in Houston. 

When she was a teenager, she gave birth to Marvin. Marvin’s father was never around. When Marvin was still an infant, Mary married Leland. Leland worked minimum-wage jobs, hauling lumber at construction sites. Sometimes they had too little money to buy food. Marvin wore hand-me-downs from cousins. The family relied on food stamps and welfare. Year after year, they were uprooted by evictions. Leland drank every day. He beat Marvin, whipped him with extension cords and called him stupid. Once when Marvin was playing basketball, Leland took the ball from him, stabbed it, and dropped the deflated lump on the concrete. 

When Marvin was young, his mother’s behavior became erratic. Marvin watched Mary chase Leland around the house with a knife. Once, Mary nearly stabbed Leland with a pair of scissors. She spoke to people no one else could see, and tore at her skin in the belief that bugs were crawling on it. Mary attempted suicide for the first time when Marvin was a little boy, and she spent time at a mental hospital. 

A few years later, Leland and Mary split up, and Marvin fell apart. He stopped sleeping. He stabbed and deflated a teacher’s car tires. He tore the furniture into bits. He cried compulsively. He slept with a knife under his pillow. Many times, he would bang his head against the wall over and over, even after his mother begged him to stop, ceasing only when she cradled his head in her arms. Mary took Marvin to the hospital, where he was confined for about two weeks and prescribed an antipsychotic. His condition improved with treatment. 

That was the last time he’d ever receive mental health care in the free world. 

Around the time Marvin returned from his hospitalization, Mary tried again to kill herself. She was hospitalized for a week and had to be fed intravenously. A year later, Mary got back together with Leland and abandoned her son to live on his own. 

This is the story Marvin’s lawyers told in his appeals. They argued that Marvin’s trial lawyers failed to create a full picture of Marvin’s life. They insisted that if the jury had known the whole story, it would have had mercy on Marvin. 

The courts denied their argument, and Marvin’s execution date was set for a few months later. At that point, I joined Marvin’s legal team in a last-ditch effort to convince the courts to stop his execution. Because Marvin’s best legal claim had already been rejected by the courts, we had few arguments left to keep him alive.


Source: The Marshall Project, Burke M. Butler, March 6, 2016. Burke M. Butler is a staff attorney at Texas Defender Service, where she represents people on the state’s death row

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