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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…

Nebraska: Activists debate death penalty as voters consider referendum

Capital punishment was repealed in the state of Nebraska nearly a year ago, however, the repeal won't become law until, and unless, Nebraskans vote to retain the repeal. The death penalty has been a source of discussion over the last few years and will continue to be so into November.

Western Nebraska Community College hosted a discussion at The Harms Center on the death penalty Wednesday. This discussion was part of a News Election Project series by Nebraska Educational Telecommunications (NET). The series, called "Classroom Conversations: Nebraska's Death Penalty Vote" will feature a WNCC ethics class taught by WNCC instructor Colin Croft.

The special guests at the discussion were Stacy Anderson and Bob Evnen. Anderson served as executive director of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (NADP) from 2011 to 2015 when the Unicameral voted 30-16 to repeal capital punishment in Nebraska. Evnen is an attorney from Lincoln and the co-founder of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty.

Evnen is counting on Nebraskans to support the death penalty. Evnen said, "One reason is that it's morally justified." He went on to explain that if you believe that people should be held morally accountable, then you should support the death penalty.

"It's also a deterrent," continued Evnen. "Strong studies show that the existence of the death penalty works as a deterrent." Citing an example of the riots at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, where inmates attacked and killed 2 other inmates, but did not attack the guards. "What's to keep a 'lifer' from killing a prison guard?" asked Evnen.

Anderson said that she grew up being a supporter of the death penalty until her friend was murdered. She wanted to know more about the death penalty and it changed her position.

"For every 10 people, we execute we are exonerating 1 person from death row."

She went on to compare that to commercial flights.

"If we had that sort of ratio every time a plane took off, we would close down the whole thing."

"We do not have any innocent people on death row in Nebraska," countered Evnen, pointing out that the process to hand down the death penalty is very thorough in Nebraska.

To which Anderson replied, "All 150 people that were released from death row looked incredibly guilty when they were convicted. There is no way to know for sure that we have the right person."

Anderson also described how the multiple appeals with death row cases cost incredible amounts of money, but more importantly, the appeals take a tremendous toll on the families of the victims. Every time the case goes up for appeal, the family has to relive the experience instead of putting it behind them and finding a way to move on.

"It is a failed, costly government program," said Anderson. "Nebraskans are better than that. We don't want to be in the business of executing people."

Evnen argued that instead of looking at the costs, we should look at the savings. He gave an example of how a person was charged with first degree murder and was facing the death penalty if convicted. Instead, they pleaded guilty and took life in prison, which saved the county the expense of a murder trial.

Evnen stated that if you are worried about the appeals with the death penalty, then we can set limits on appeals. Whatever the answer is, Evnen insisted, "The answer is not throwing in the towel."

Evnen stated, "There is no such thing as life without parole anyway. There is no such thing as life without release."

He explained that the pardons board in our state has enormous authority and can commute sentences. Evnen gave an example of a man that had his sentence commuted, he was paroled, and sexually assaulted a young girl.

"The idea that we can just get rid of the death penalty and keep going is just not the case."

Anderson rebutted, "Apart from the pardons board, you can't take away a life sentence."

She provided an Attorney General's Opinion, written by Attorney General Doug Peterson. Apart from the pardons board commuting a sentence of life to a term of years, a person cannot come up for parole.

Source: Scottsbluff Star Herald, April 21, 2016

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