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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. Sees 2nd Fewest Death Sentences and Executions in 25 Years

Florida's death chamber
Public Support for Death Penalty Drops to 45-Year Low as 4 More Death-Row Prisoners Exonerated in 2017

Executions and death sentences remained near historically low levels in 2017, as public support for the death penalty fell to its lowest level in 45 years, according to a report released today by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). 8 states carried out 23 executions, 1/2 the number of 7 years ago, and the 2nd lowest total since 1991. 

Only the 20 executions in 2016 were lower. 14 states and the federal government are projected to impose 39 new death sentences in 2017, the 2nd lowest annual total since the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972. It was the 7th year in a row that fewer than 100 death sentences were imposed nationwide.

➤ The report, graphics, and audio clips are available at https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/YearEnd2017

"Perhaps more than any place else, the changes in Harris County, Texas are symbolic of the long-term change in capital punishment in the United States. For the 1st time since 1974, the county that has carried out more executions than any other did not execute any prisoner or sentence any defendant to death," said Robert Dunham, DPIC's Executive Director.

"Across the political spectrum, more people are coming to the view that there are better ways to keep us safe than executing a handful of offenders selected from a random death-penalty lottery. There will be times when numbers fluctuate - particularly following historic highs or lows - but the steady long-term decline in the death penalty since the 1990s suggests that in most of the country, the death penalty is becoming obsolete," Dunham said. DPIC provides information and analysis and tracks data on the death penalty, but does not take a position for or against capital punishment.

The new death sentences imposed in 2017 highlight the increasing geographic isolation and arbitrary nature of the death penalty, Dunham said. "By themselves, 3 outlier counties - Riverside, CA; Clark, NV; and Maricopa, AZ - were responsible for more than 30% of all the death sentences imposed nationwide. The other 3,140 counties and parishes imposed fewer new death sentences than even last year's record low." Riverside imposed 5 death sentences in 2017, Clark 4, and Maricopa 3, and no other county imposed as many as 2. It was the 2nd time in 3 years that Riverside sentenced more people to death than any other county.

Many believe that the risk of executing the innocent is one of the leading factors behind the public's decrease in support for the death penalty.

States scheduled 81 executions in 2017, but 58 of them - more than 70 % - were never carried out. Nearly 75 % of executions took place in 4 states: Texas (7); Arkansas (4); Florida (3); and Alabama (3). But Texas's state courts stayed seven other executions using new laws to permit those prisoners to obtain judicial review of false or misleading evidence, and its execution total tied 2016 for the fewest conducted by the state since 1996.

The Walls Unit, Huntsville, Texas
Systemic problems with racial discrimination, flawed or fraudulent forensic testimony, poor legal representation, and prosecutorial misconduct contributed to four death-row exonerations in 2017. 

In 1 exoneration this year, an African-American man in Louisiana had been convicted of killing his infant son, even though an autopsy showed his son died of natural causes.

Many believe that the risk of executing the innocent is one of the leading factors behind the public's decrease in support for the death penalty.

According to the Gallup poll, public support for the death penalty dropped by 5 % in 2017, and Republicans registered a 10 % point drop since last year. This year's 55 % support marks the lowest level since 1972, just before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the nation's death penalty laws unconstitutional.

The Death Penalty Information Center (www.deathpenaltyinfo.org) is a non-profit organization serving the media and the public with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment. 

DPIC was founded in 1990 and prepares in-depth reports, issues press releases, conducts briefings for the media, and serves as a resource to those working on this issue.

Source: Death Penalty Information Center, 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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