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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…

Texas: Issue of Mental Health Assessment a Focus as 3 Fight Death Sentences

Scott Panetti, Randall Mays and Robert Roberson
Scott Panetti, Randall Mays and Robert Roberson
Randall Mays is on death row for killing two sheriff's deputies. Scott Panetti was sentenced to die for killing his estranged wife's parents. And a jury condemned Robert Roberson for killing his 2-year-old daughter.

Beyond being on Texas’ death row, the three share another common thread: their attorneys are challenging whether the criminal justice process addresses the issue of mental illness fairly and comprehensively when weighing the death penalty for killers.

In each case, trial prosecutors and attorneys for the state have argued the men intentionally killed their victims and understand why they were convicted and sentenced to death, a constitutional benchmark before the condemned can be executed.

But attorneys for the men argue that although their clients are killers, their documented mental health histories could negate the intentional killing argument and therefore raise the question of whether execution is cruel and unusual punishment. Though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states can't execute the intellectually disabled, an exact legal definition of that condition remains open to debate. Any of these three cases could ultimately help clarify that issue for others in similar situations.

Mays’ and Panetti’s attorneys argue their clients aren’t competent to be executed. Roberson’s attorneys say his right to due process was violated at trial.

Criminal justice experts say that determining mental health can be hard for anyone, including judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors and jurors. They say the cases of Mays, Panetti and Roberson are key in furthering the discussion in how mental health is gauged when applying the death penalty.

"When a defendant has mental or emotional problems, those problems don't just affect his or her conduct at the time of the crime," said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “They affect the way he or she is able to relate to his [or her] lawyers, to the defense lawyers, and the way they appear to the court and the way they appear to the jury.”


Source: Texas Tribune, Jonathan Silver, May 28, 2016

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