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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…

Utah Senate gives initial OK to death penalty repeal

A longshot proposal for conservative Utah to join 19 states and the District of Columbia in abolishing the death penalty passed an initial vote in the state Senate Tuesday after a 5-minute presentation where no lawmaker asked a question or contested the proposal.

Steve Urquhart, the Republican senator running the proposal, acknowledged the lack of discussion during his speech in the Senate floor. He said lawmakers had spent a lot of time discussing the measure outside of scheduled or public hearings.

Once lawmakers started voting, one GOP lawmaker, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, spoke to explain why he was voting in favor. Thatcher said the years of appeals by death row inmates can be difficult for families of victims.

"Ultimately, we have to put the victims first. And delayed justice, decades delayed justice, is not justice," Thatcher said.

A bipartisan group of senators voted 20-9 Tuesday to advance the measure to a final vote in the Senate, where it could face further debate or changes. The proposal must also win approval from the state's GOP-controlled House of Representatives and Republican governor, who says he's in favor of capital punishment.

Urquhart has acknowledged it will be an uphill battle to pass his proposal but says it's important that lawmakers discuss whether the government should be in the business of killing people.

To sway his colleagues, he's made arguments about the cost of capital punishment after years of court appeals and the chance of wrongful convictions.

That same mix of practical concerns and broader moral and philosophical questions that Urquhart is raising has led conservatives in other red states to re-examine longstanding support for capital punishment in recent years.

Last year, Nebraska's Republican-controlled Legislature voted to abolish the death penalty over a veto from that state's GOP governor. It became the first traditionally conservative state to eliminate the punishment since North Dakota dropped the practice in 1973. But death penalty supporters quickly launched a petition drive, leaving Nebraska voters to decide the issue this November.

In at least 8 other states, legislators have introduced similar measures over the past year and many have attracted Republican backers. But it remains unclear how many of the proposals will gain enough support to pass anytime soon.

Urquhart's proposal would allow executions to go forward for the 9 people on Utah's death row now, but remove it as an option for any new convictions.

During a committee hearing on the proposal last week, 2 Republicans voted against the measure, saying they think Utah needs to keep the option out of respect for the family members of victims and as an added measure of justice against horrific crimes.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, has said he's a strong supporter of capital punishment but it should only be used for "the most heinous of crimes."

Herbert signed a law last year that bolstered the state's execution policy by ordering that a firing squad be used if lethal injection drugs cannot be obtained.

Urquhart voted for the firing squad bill, saying that if Utah has a death penalty law on the books, it should have an efficient way to carry out the practice.

Source: Associated Press, March 1, 2016

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