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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…

Oklahoma death penalty panel has its work cut out

Oklahoma's death chamber
Oklahoma's death chamber
The U.S. Supreme Court has said as recently as last year, when it ruled on a sedative that's used in Oklahoma executions, that the manner in which Oklahoma carries out the death penalty is constitutional. But is the same true of the overall process?

This will be the focus of a yearlong study to be led by former Gov. Brad Henry, with help from the Constitution Project, a research nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. Those involved intend to look at the death penalty in Oklahoma from top to bottom, from arrest to execution, and gauge the fairness of the system.

There are many, in Oklahoma and across the country, who believe the entire U.S. criminal justice system is patently unfair, and they point to the large numbers of blacks and indigent offenders who wind up behind bars nationwide. Do race and economic status play outsized roles in Oklahoma's capital cases? This is sure to be explored.

We have written many times through the years about the burden carried by the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, which does the important work of providing counsel for those who can't afford a personal attorney. The OIDS, with a budget of $16 million, handles roughly 44,000 cases per year in its 75 counties (Oklahoma and Tulsa counties have their own systems). These include murder cases which, depending on circumstances, could carry the death penalty.

OIDS attorneys could have as many as 30 to 40 open cases at a time. The agency's executive director handles half a dozen or more cases himself each year, due to staffing concerns. His agency has roughly a half-dozen investigators spread across Oklahoma. District attorneys' offices, meanwhile, have several investigators, along with other resources at their disposal to use in prosecuting their cases.

This would seem to tilt the playing field decidedly against those who must use the indigent defense system. On the other hand, death penalty cases have several steps of review built in, and wrongful prosecutions in Oklahoma death penalty cases have been rare. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 10 Oklahoma death row inmates have been exonerated through the years. The state has carried out 112 executions since 1976, and has 49 inmates on death row today.

All Oklahoma executions have been on hold since October, when a moratorium was put in place at the request of Attorney General Scott Pruitt. His office is investigating circumstances that led to the wrong drug being delivered to the state prison for use in 2 executions last year, one of which was carried out. The other was halted in September.

Mark Henrickson, who represents the inmate whose execution was postponed, says Oklahoma is "at a critical phase" with the death penalty, due partly to the state's current budget problems. "I can be sure they're not sending more funds to make sure people get fair cases," Henrickson said.

The new commission includes judges, prosecutors, public defenders, former elected officials and others. Members have a lot of heavy lifting to do during the next year. Henry, who approved several executions during his 2 terms as governor, rightly noted that the consequences in these cases couldn't be higher. Thus, the death penalty "needs to be done right."

We wish the commission luck and look forward to what it finds about Oklahoma's process in carrying out the ultimate punishment, a penalty that has run aground in a majority of states but still enjoys strong public support here.

Source: The Oklahoman, Editorial Board, April 1, 2016

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