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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…

Holidays difficult for victims and death row inmates

Memorial ornaments on a Christmas tree
Hilda Vasquez was a newcomer to the party, a first-timer.

She didn't know what to expect, but she took in the decorations, the snacks, the table full of ornaments.

A pair of skates, wind chimes. A wooden snowman. A teddy bear. A picture of a little girl.

She nestled hers - a picture of her son - in between them all, the latest addition to the somber Christmas tree.

Last February, her 18-year-old son Javier Flores was gunned down when he intervened to save her life during an ill-fated Subway robbery.

So earlier this month, Vasquez got together with a few dozen other friends and family of homicide victims to decorate a memorial tree honoring their loved ones.

"Everything just breaks my heart because I just wish we weren't here doing this," Vasquez said. "But I see a lot of people here suffering like I am."

While the lonely Christmases tick by for grieving families, time creeps along for the 200-plus people on Texas death row.

"There are no holidays on death row," said Anthony Graves, a wrongfully convicted Brenham man released in 2010. "I'm not trying to have sympathy for folks who committed a crime, I'm just saying what the facts are. "

There's no religious services and, unlike regular days, there's no mail, recreation or visiting, according to current and former prisoners at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston.

"You just sit in your cell all day," said Alfred Dewayne Brown, a former death row prisoner whose conviction was overturned.

Some of the day's routine is the same as usual. Breakfast comes through at the regular time - around 2 or 3 a.m. But then in the mid-morning come the holiday meal trays. First, it's a cold plate, maybe with some fruit - a rare treat - and cake or pie. Then comes a warm plate with turkey or chicken.

For dinner it's a sack with two sandwiches.

"You get green baloney at the end of the day just to remind you where you are," Graves quipped.

The rest of the day, the prisoners sit alone in their cells, waiting for meals or listening to the radio.

"You have people who are mentally ill who may not really have any sense that it's a holiday because every day is the same," Graves said.

One man recalled making a mini-tree with paper and toothpaste. Another said he'd once received snowflake cutouts from a mentally ill neighbor.

"If you hang it up, the guard ain't gonna do nothing but come in there and tear it down," Brown said. This year was the 35-year-old's third holiday season since his release in 2015.

"A lot of people feel shame and remorse," said Garland Harper, a Sunnyside man convicted of killing Triska Lashaun Rose and her two daughters in 2008. "Being isolated on death row is a real lonely experience."

Andy Kahan, the city of Houston's victim advocate, started organizing the annual tree-decorating efforts at City Hall more than two decades ago, after hearing about a similar event for prisoners' families.

"We thought you know what if they have one for inmates' families then we should do one for victims' families," he said. "The holiday seasons are especially difficult for survivors of homicide and we thought this would be a unique way of bringing everybody together and paying homage to family members."

Now in its 23rd year, the gathering allowed each family member a chance to speak to the small crowd before placing an ornament on the tree. District Attorney Kim Ogg spoke to the tearful families after an outdoor balloon release.

"There is justice," she said. "The results are not guaranteed, but the system is."

Vasquez is still waiting to learn the fate of her son's killer. In the meantime, she's honored her boy at home this holiday season by placing his ashes underneath last year's tree. But the gathering downtown was special, offering a sense of solidarity she might not find elsewhere.

"It's not just me," she said. "There's a lot of other people here suffering."

Source: Houston Chronicle, Keri Blakinger | December 31, 2017


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