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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…

South Dakota panel rejects eliminating death penalty for mentally ill offenders

A legislative panel on Monday defeated a bill that would have eliminated the option of the death sentence for severely mentally ill criminal offenders.

The House State Affairs Committee on a 8-4 vote opted to reject the bill after defense attorneys, mental health advocates and others advocated for its passage, saying severely mentally ill individuals shouldn't be subject to capital punishment.

The measure proposed instead setting a life sentence without opportunity for parole as the maximum penalty for criminal offenders found to have severe mental illnesses.

"You only execute morally culpable people and if you have a serious mental illness, you're not morally culpable," said the measure's sponsor Rep. Timothy Johns, R-Lead.

Attorney General Marty Jackley, state's attorneys from Minnehaha and Pennington Counties and others said the current process is adequate to assess offenders' mental health status and to eliminate the option of the death sentence for offenders who are found to have mental illnesses.

Aaron McGowan, Minnehaha County state's attorney, said very seldom do prosecutors seek the death penalty for offenders and those cases don't involve mentally ill individuals.

"We use it sparingly, we use it appropriately and we'd ask this committee to consider that these are evil defendants who have a hole in their brains where most of us have a conscience," he said.

Opponents also argued that the bill was an effort to eliminate capital punishment in South Dakota.

"HB 1099 is a death penalty repeal in all but name," Jackley said.

A handful of other states have considered and rejected similar measures.

Source: Argus Leader, February 15, 2017

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