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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…

California: Riverside County leads U.S. in death penalty sentences, but hasn’t executed anyone in 39 years

Patrol car
For the second time in the last three years, Riverside County has produced more new death row inmates than any other county in the United States.

California accounted for 28 percent of all the new death penalty sentences across the country in 2017, according to a new report by the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington D.C. nonprofit which researches capital punishment. Riverside County accounted for five of the state’s death row sentences, the most of any county in the U.S., despite a statewide moratorium on executions. 

A Riverside County inmate has not been executed since at least 1978. No California inmate has been put to death since 2006.

A researcher with DPIC said the high rate could be an indicator of larger issues within Riverside County's criminal justice system, a notion the county's district attorney dismissed as "nonsense."

Robert Dunham, author of the report and DPIC executive director, said research showed death penalty sentences were an “accident of geography” and that Riverside County had long been an outlier.

“For every seven-and-a-half death sentences imposed somewhere else, one is imposed in Riverside County,” he said. “Riverside County has historically been much more aggressive in pursuing the death penalty than other counties its size and with its murder rate.”

Dunham said that a high rate of death penalty sentences isn’t something that occurs in a vacuum and can be indicative of a prosecutorial culture that “will do anything to win.” He referenced the massive wiretapping operation built up by Riverside County prosecutors and the Drug Enforcement Administration which accounted for one-fifth of all the wiretaps in the United States.

“You don’t see counties that overproduce death penalties and are model citizens in the administration of justice as a whole,” Dunham said.

Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin said he “strenuously” objected to that sentiment and added his office prides itself on being responsible as it pursues the death penalty.

“That’s just a bunch of nonsense and I would challenge this individual to come look at our cases,” he said.

"California accounted for 28 percent of all the new death penalty sentences across the country in 2017."

Hestrin has been more cautious in pursuing the death penalty than his predecessors, but said his office has pushed hard for death sentences – the office sought the death penalty five times this year and got it each time.

He added that while it’s important to monitor the use of capital punishment and keep prosecutor’s offices accountable, it’s also important to think about the victims of these crimes and their families who deserve justice, which sometimes includes the death penalty.

The five people sentenced to death in Riverside County in 2017 were Elias Lopez, convicted of two homicides in Indio from 2014; Johnny Lopez, who was convicted of two murders, rape and attempted murder in Hemet from 2013; David Contreras, who was convicted of three murders in Perris from 2012 and 2013; Lorraine Alison Hunter, convicted of a murder in Moreno Valley in 2009; and Raymond Barrera, who was convicted of three murders near San Jacinto from 2013.

Between the five people sentenced to death this year in the county, there were 11 murder victims and two attempted murder victims.

“These are heinous crimes. Whenever someone's killing more than one person, it certainly weighs heavily on me,” Hestrin said.

Riverside County Public Defender Steven Harmon said he believed the county has long overused capital punishment, largely due to the inclinations of Hestrin’s predecessors. Hestrin was elected district attorney in 2014 and took office the following year.

“I must commend Mike Hestrin,” Harmon said. “He has taken a far more measured approach to deciding in which cases he should seek the death penalty.”

Harmon, who said he was personally opposed to the death penalty, said the county also did have a more conservative jury pool filled with "fine, good, justice-seeking people," but that prosecutorial discretion was the main driver behind death penalty sentences. Juries can only hand down a sentence of death if it is pursued by the DA's office.


Dunham said DPIC has studied Riverside County specifically since it’s such an anomaly. From 2010 to 2015, Riverside County was second only to Los Angeles County in the number of death penalty convictions, though the latter has a much higher murder rate. He said the county sees death penalty sentences at a nine times greater rate per homicide than the rest of California.

"Part of the reason why many people are sentenced to death in the U.S. is because people who are opposed to the death penalty cannot serve on death penalty juries."

In 2016, California voters passed a statewide ballot measure to speed up executions and death penalty appeals. The state supreme court allowed the law to take effect, but threw out the provision that death row inmates had only five years to appeal their conviction.

In California, 746 people remained on death row in 2017.

A competing statewide measure, which would have repealed the death penalty, failed. In Riverside County, only about a third of voters cast their ballots in favor of outlawing capital punishment. A long-debated issue in California, legal challenges to the death penalty have been ongoing since the 1960s. The state has not executed an inmate in more than a decade and a federal court ruling blocking executions until a new protocol was developed remains in effect. 

Dunham said it was still unclear what effect the 2016 ballot measure would ultimately have.

Death row, San Quentin prison, California
Nationally, the trend seemed to be moving in the opposite direction. Twenty three executions took place and the report projected there would be 39 death sentences handed down by the end of 2017, the second lowest in 25 years. Only 2016 saw fewer executions and death sentences, according to the report. 

“The long-term trends, nationwide, are that the death penalty is still on the decline,” Dunham said.

The report also indicated that national support for the death penalty had fallen in recent years, though more than half of Americans still support the practice for people convicted of murder, according to a recent Gallup Poll.

2017 also saw four death row exonerations in the U.S. and four additional death row inmates had their sentences commuted to life in prison.

Dunham pointed out that part of the reason why many people are sentenced to death in the U.S. is because people who are opposed to the death penalty cannot serve on death penalty juries.

“In a capital case, you don’t get a jury of your peers,” he said. “You get a jury composed only of members of the community who are willing to impose the death penalty.”

Source: The Desert Sun, Corinne Kennedy, December 14, 2017


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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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