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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…

Georgia executes Steven Frederick Spears

Georgia executed Wednesday evening a man who killed his ex-girlfriend in August 2001.

Steven Frederick Spears was put to death by injection of the barbiturate pentobarbital at Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson.

Spears was pronounced dead at 7:30 p.m. He refused a final prayer and did not record a final statement.

The 54-year-old was convicted in the slaying of Sherri Holland at her home in Dahlonega.

Steven Frederick Spears didn't really want to die but hadn't pursued appeals because he also didn't want to continue living in prison, a psychiatrist said in an evaluation report.

Lawyers for the state submitted to a court the evaluation of inmate Steven Frederick Spears, which was performed Tuesday. 

The evaluation by Dr. Matthew Norman said Spears didn't meet any criteria for mental illness and had the capacity to understand his situation and to make a rational choice to decline to pursue legal challenges to his planned execution.

A lawyer with the Georgia Resource Center, which acts on behalf of death row inmates, had filed a petition saying Spears had declined to challenge his sentence because of mental illness.

A judge on Wednesday dismissed that petition.

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles declined to grant clemency for 54-year-old Steven Frederick Spears.

The board held a clemency hearing on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the board announced its decision not to spare his life. The board is the only authority in Georgia with the power to commute a death sentence.

As is customary, the board did not give a reason for its denial.

A Georgia Supreme Court summary of the case says Spears killed Holland because he suspected she'd become romantically involved with someone else.

It says Spears choked her, wrapped tape around her mouth and face and put a plastic bag over her head.

Steven Frederick Spears
Steven Frederick Spears
Spears told investigators in a 90-minute, tape-recorded confession that he came up with four different plans to kill Holland. According to a summary from the Georgia Supreme Court:

-- He went into the crawl space under her house and attached wires to the drainpipe and cold water pipe of her shower that he planned to attach to her home's circuit board to electrocute her as she showered;

-- He planned to carve a baseball bat from a tree branch, leave it under a canoe at her house and beat her to death with it;

-- He planned to crawl into her house from the crawl space through an air conditioner vent and load her shotgun so he could use it later;

-- He hid duct tape under her canoe so he could choke her, bind her with the tape and suffocate her with a plastic bag.

He ultimately chose the 4th plan, placing Holland's bag-covered head on a pillow, "so her face wouldn't be smashed on the floor," he told investigators. He left her body in her bedroom and locked the door with a padlock to keep her teenage son from entering when he returned home from his dad's house.

Spears lived in the woods for 10 days before an officer saw him walking along a highway, asked his name and arrested him.

Spears said he told Holland when they began dating that if he caught her or heard that she was sleeping with someone else he would "choke her ass to death." He told investigators he told her he loved her just before choking her. Toward the end of his confession, Spears told investigators, "I loved her that much. I told her I wasn't letting her go, and I didn't." He added that he'd do it again if he had to.

Spears becomes the eighth inmate executed in Georgia this year, the most in a calendar year in the state since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

Georgia has executed more inmates this year than any other state.

There have been 67 men and one woman executed in Georgia since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

Spears was the 45th inmate put to death by lethal injection. There are presently 59 men on death row in Georgia.

Sources: The Associated Press, Twitter live feed, Georgia DOC, November 16, 2016

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