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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…

Can Texas Even Carry Out an Execution Anymore?

The Walls Unit, Huntsville, where Texas carries out its executions
The Walls Unit, Huntsville, where Texas carries out its executions
Officials down at Texas' once-proud and prolific death chamber must be beginning to wonder if they'll ever execute another inmate. The state hasn't executed anyone since Pablo Vasquez on April 6 and has since seen the past 12 inmates avoid the imminent within a few days of their death dates. Those stays - and in Perry Williams' case, a straight withdrawal (see "Death Watch: A First Time for Everything," July 15) - have come through questions over innocence, certain legal statutes, and a creeping feeling that the death penalty might not be that good of an idea. 

Look no further than the June opinion from Elsa Alcala, a judge on the traditionally death-friendly Court of Criminal Appeals, in the case of Julius Murphy. The judge saw "serious deficiencies" that have "caused ... great concern about this form of punishment as it exists in Texas today." One begins to sense a changing tide.

A stay was the case again late Friday, Sept. 2, when the CCA put the execution of Robert Mitchell Jennings on ice pending further order of the court. 

Jennings, 58, was convicted in 1989 for the 1988 murder of Houston Police Officer Elston Howard, who was issuing a citation to the owner of an adult novelty store when Jennings burst in to rob the place and shot Howard 4 times. 

The Houston native already had 2 convictions for aggravated robbery, and 1 for a home burglary, and had only been out for 2 months when he killed Howard. Even during that short time, his appeals attorneys acknowledge, Jennings had committed 5 different robberies.

In his CCA appeal this summer, Jennings argued that the state destroyed mitigating evidence that could have spared his life - particularly a recording of a police interview conducted shortly after Jennings' arrest in which he expressed "remorse in the way I feel about the incident that happened." 

Jennings has said that he had been drinking, that Howard "ran towards him" before he shot, and that he wished he could "take it all back." The trial court issued a "nullification" instruction during punishment, rendering the recording irrelevant during trial. 

Jennings' attorney Randy Schaffer cites precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court establishing the "nullification" instruction as unconstitutional. The high court has held since 2001 that "nullification" instruction requires reversal of a death sentence if there was mitigating evidence that the jury was not afforded the opportunity to consider. (Jennings has also asserted that he received ineffective counsel during his trial and that the death penalty violates the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.)

Jennings' name has also been included in the joint lawsuit filed Aug. 12 in Judge Lynn Hughes' court with Jeffery Wood, Ramiro Gonzales, Rolando Ruiz, and Terry Edwards - the 5 inmates on the execution calendar at the time of the suit's filing (see "Death Watch: The Quality of State Killings," Aug. 26). 

The 5 argue that they should be granted the right to have their doses of compounded pentobarbital (the cocktail used in state killings) tested for purity. The state said it would extend the courtesy to Perry Williams earlier this summer after Williams filed his own complaint, but in 6 months never got around to running the quick test (for some reason). Williams eventually got his date withdrawn.

Hughes dismissed Wood et al. 3 weeks ago, holding that: "The Constitution protects the rights of the people [to have their death doses tested] - not rights held collectively by groups." An appeal is currently pending in the 5th Circuit.

Source: Austin Chronicle, September 8, 2016

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