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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…

Having the death penalty doesn't make Louisiana safe

Death Row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary
Death Row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary
When is the deterrent effect of the death penalty finally going to kick in? That is the question that Louisiana lawmakers who defend the state's death penalty law should be made to answer this session. Three lawmakers -- Sen. Dan Claitor, R- Baton Rouge; Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, and Rep. Steven Pylant, R-Winnsboro -- have filed bills that would abolish the death penalty in Louisiana. As their colleagues defend the death penalty -- as they inevitably will -- they need to be ask one pointed question: If they believe the death penalty deters other people from killing, when, exactly, do they predict that the killings are going to start thinning out?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2014 Louisiana had the highest homicide mortality rate in the country. For every 100,000 people in our state there were 11.7 homicides, for a total of 538. Mississippi was a close second to Louisiana, with 11.4 homicides per 100,000 people, and Alabama was third with a homicide rate of 8.1.

After Alabama, there's Arkansas, South Carolina, Missouri, New Mexico, Maryland and Delaware. Arkansas, South Carolina and Missouri all have the death penalty. New Mexico abolished the death penalty in 2009, and Maryland did so in 2013. Delaware's Supreme Court effectively ended the death penalty there last year, which means that when the CDC did the homicide rate study mentioned above, Delaware still had a death penalty.

So of the 10 most murderous states in 2014, eight of those states had the death penalty, and one of the two states that didn't have it had just abolished it the previous year.

The 10 least murderous states were Vermont, North Dakota, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Utah, Maine, Hawaii, Oregon and Idaho. Four of those states -- New Hampshire, Utah, Oregon and Idaho -- still have laws on their books that allow the state to put murderers to death.

So there are, indeed, states with low murder rates and the death penalty. But the low murder rates in those states do not appear to be a function of those states having the death penalty.

But that's the argument that many death penalty proponents make: that when people know they can be killed if they kill, then they will think twice about killing. That argument presumes that murderers are thinkers, that they sit down at their kitchen table sketching out the pros and cons of ending another person's life. If that's how killers operated, maybe the death penalty would have a deterrent effect. Maybe a would-be murderer would weigh snuffing out an enemy against the potential of being snuffed out and decide against committing the crime.

But that's not how it works, is it? People who murder aren't usually planning on being caught. It seems naive to expect logical behavior from people who are committing an act that is usually illogical, full of emotion and desperation.

So Louisiana's lawmakers could decide to get rid of it because it doesn't have the deterrent effect its proponents tout. We have the penalty in place and still have the country's highest rate of homicide.

Click here to read the full article

Source: nola.com, Jarvis DeBerry, April 5, 2017. Jarvis DeBerry is deputy opinions editor for NOLA.COM | The Times-Picayune.

⏩ Related content: Death penalty ban to be considered by Louisiana Legislature, April 5, 2017

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