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

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…

My death row experience: watching men waiting to die

Texas death row, Polunsky Unit
Texas death row, Polunsky Unit, Livingston,
I was three weeks into life on death row when a killing came calling. Over the course of my twelve years there, I’d eventually see the state kill more than three hundred and fifty men. The first was Warren Bridge, known then as inmate number 668. Warren was white, and tipped the scales at less than 140 pounds. He was only nineteen when he robbed a convenience store and killed the clerk. At thirty-two he’d exhausted his appeals and had an execution date looming. Warren’s execution offered a chance to consider the death penalty not in its abstract form, but in the reality laid painfully bare in front of me. Platitudes retreated at the sight of what was actually happening there on that day. The state was preparing to kill a man.

I didn’t know how I felt about the death penalty at the time. Most people don’t give much thought to capital punishment, and prior to my time on death row, I was among that lot. I never had time to consider the death penalty in its general sense. The moral and economic hang-ups were discussions to be had by policy makers and lawyers. I knew only that I didn’t support it in my case. Advocates suggest that the penalty of death is a deterrent to crime, but I can’t imagine that Warren thought much about the gurney when he decided to rob that store. As they strapped him in and carried him away, he uttered his last words: “I’ll see you.” It was a painful reminder of the inadequacy of final statements for summarizing even the worst-lived human lives.

The soon-to-die were allowed inmate visitors in the hours before their execution. Over the years, a few men chose me as their visitor, based on relationships that I had developed during my time there. Maybe I was a good listener, because I never knew exactly what to say. It was a sort of rapid-fire hospice, counseling men in their last hours and just being a friend. I think my life experiences – having a child at an early age, and not having a father figure in my life, (despite living with both my parents) – equipped me for this odd role as counselor-to-the-condemned. I was twenty-nine years old when I entered death row. What I soon realized was that I had a lot of younger guys around me that the state had sentenced to death. I was quickly thrust into the role of giving this sort of advice because so many of them had come down there and had never heard nor had ever engaged in a positive and constructive conversation.

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Source: Anthony Believes, AG Admin, May 4, 2017. Anthony Charles Graves – known as United States Death Row Exoneree #138, spent 18 ½ years behind bars; 16 of those years in solitary confinement. Mr. Graves spent 12 years of his sentence on death row, and had 2 slated execution dates – for a horrific crime he didn’t commit. Anthony Graves has dedicated his life to educating and empowering his audience thru his amazing story about faith, forgiveness, but equally important accountability. He has been featured on television, radio and on events all around the world creating awareness about the judicial system and inspiring others to make a difference with their lives.

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