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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…

Are Texas juries making the case for the end of the death penalty?

Texas' Death Row
Texas' Death Row
It was welcome news this week that the death penalty is continuing to fall out of favor with Texas juries.

In the 15 death penalty cases tried in Texas since 2015, jurors have sentenced only eight men to death. In Dallas County, prosecutors have sought capital punishment in just two cases since 2014; juries declined to sentence defendants to death in both.

They've got good reasons to be reluctant.

This newspaper has been calling for the end of the death penalty in Texas since 2007. This error-prone system has proved to be expensive, arbitrary and unfair — and does little to discourage heinous crimes. It's clear that even in Texas, once the nation's death penalty leader, county prosecutors are seeking it less.

Fellow advocates against capital punishment call that progress. It's promising that district attorneys are showing that they can live without the death penalty. There were seven executions in Texas last year, four so far this year. And national momentum is already swinging against support.

It may have been too much to hope for that Texas lawmakers would finally abolish the death penalty this legislative session. They once again left repeal legislation stuck in committee.

But there were hopeful signs that Austin is moving in the right direction.

A bill to repeal the death penalty at least received public hearings this session. And three bills that would have made more crimes eligible for the death penalty were never heard in committee.

Legislators also sent a bipartisan bill to Gov. Greg Abbott aimed at preventing wrongful convictions, one of the main reasons for waning confidence in the system.

Police would be required to record interrogations, and prosecutors would have to provide jurors more information about testimony from so-called prison snitches. Stricter protocols also would be in place for eyewitness identification.

That's all good news.

Evidence continues to mount that this system is too ripe for mistakes. Arkansas' recent rush to execute eight men before its lethal injection drug could expire highlighted the outside forces that can affect the course of justice.

In Texas, two men were removed from death row in recent weeks based on evidence of their mental disabilities. Pedro Sosa, on death row for 32 years for a 1983 abduction and murder, had his sentence reduced to life. And Attorney General Ken Paxton's office determined that Robert Campbell, in prison for 25 years for rape and murder in 1991, should receive a new sentencing hearing after it was discovered that his disabilities had been concealed by prosecutors.

No one wants hardened criminals roaming our streets. But no one should want a system that unconstitutionally executes the mentally disabled, either — or one that doles out different brands of justice to different types of defendants.

There are other tools — life without parole, for example — to punish the worst of the worst among us. Texas can live without the death penalty — and is better off without it.

Source: Dallas Morning News, Editorial, June 6, 2017

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