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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…

On the Death Penalty, New Jersey Got it Right

New Jersey State House
In August 1982, New Jersey reenacted the death penalty after the United State Supreme Court decision in Gregg v. Georgia reinstated capital punishment in bifurcated proceedings. The reinstatement was futile. No defendant convicted under the 1982 legislation was put to death—the last execution in New Jersey was in 1963.

Thanks to the vigorous efforts of the Public Defender’s Office and other members of the defense bar, no defendant convicted under the 1982 legislation was put to death. In case after case, our Supreme Court concluded that capital punishment had not been fairly and rationally imposed. The Appellate Division in 2004 found the procedures by which capital punishment was imposed to be unconstitutional, and a legislatively created Death Penalty Study Commission recommended its abolition.

Dec. 17 marks the 10th anniversary of the statute that abolished the death penalty and substituted life imprisonment without parole for those convicted of capital murder. Abolition followed the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission’s recommendation that “the death penalty in New Jersey be abolished and replaced with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, to be served in a maximum security facility” and “that any cost savings resulting from the abolition of the death penalty be used for benefits and services for survivors of victims of homicide.”

The study commission concluded that the death penalty was both uneconomic and unnecessary, as well as unjust. It found that the costs of imposing the death penalty, with all its necessary judicial proceedings and post-conviction proceedings, were “greater than the costs of life in prison without parole.” It found “no compelling evidence that the New Jersey death penalty serves a legitimate penological intent.” Most importantly, it found that “the penological interest in executing a small number of persons guilty of murder is not sufficiently compelling to justify the risk of making an irreversible mistake.” Instead, it concluded, abolition “will eliminate the risk of disproportionality in capital sentencing;” and life imprisonment without parole “would sufficiently ensure public safety and address other legitimate social and penological interests.” The commission balanced the cost of devoting resources to the possible execution of a small number of murderers and the risk of irreversible mistake and found that they outweighed any advantage from deterrence or any other reason for the state to intentionally take life.

Ten years’ experience has proven that the commission was right. There is no evidence that any lack of deterrence has produced more homicides. Abolition has proven its worth in that there has been no surge of murders, a significant decline of prosecution and appeal expenses, and the elimination of irremediable judicial mistakes. It was and remains both the right thing and the sensible thing to have done.

Source: New Jersey Law Journal, Editorial Board, December 17, 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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In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning