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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…

U.S.: Why plummeting public support for the death penalty doesn't mean it's going away

Texas' death chamber
Support for the death penalty is at a 4-decade low among the American public, but that may be of little consequence in the struggle over the future of capital punishment. That's because the death penalty is the practice not of the nation, but rather of a handful of states.

The federal government is a minor player in criminal justice, housing just 1 in 8 inmates. The federal government executed 2 prisoners on the same day in 1957, but implemented capital punishment only four times in the 60 years since. It's states that charge and sentence almost all the individuals who commit the crimes that lead to capital sentences (e.g., murder). And, more specifically, it's just 5 of those states that are the true force behind capital punishment, accounting for 90 % of the 122 executions carried out in the past 3 years.

Texas stands out for its particularly outsized role, accounting for over 1/3 of capital punishment. Florida, Georgia and Missouri each account for about 1 in 7 executions, and Oklahoma accounts for about 1 in 12. The other 45 states collectively account for only 10 % of prisoner executions, even though the law in 30 of those states allows capital punishment.

Rather than ask "why does the United States have capital punishment," it makes more sense to ask why these particular 5 states apply it so often. Obviously, all are politically conservative states within or bordering the South. But this is also true of Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee, none of which has put a prisoner to death in recent years (indeed, Louisiana came close to abolishing the death penalty in this year's legislative cycle.)

Stanford Law School Professor Robert Weisberg points to state-specific processes and incentives as drivers of the death penalty in a subset of conservative states. Most notably, he says, "Texas has elected judges. It is also located in the prosecutor-friendly 5th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals. Although the Supreme Court occasionally slaps down the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and its federal accomplice, the Fifth Circuit, for allowing egregiously unfair capital trials, on the whole those lower courts have been happy to give Texas prosecutors a generously wide berth."

Most states have abandoned the death penalty de jure or de facto. But in the absence of change in the handful of states that combine punitive views on crime with legal processes that facilitate capital punishment, the practice will remain a part of the criminal justice system.

Source: The Washington Post, Opinion, June 21, 2017. Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and is an affiliated faculty member at Stanford Law School and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute.

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