In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning

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…

Idaho County commissioners take stand against death penalty

US Dollars
Blaine is 1st county to pull out of state defense fund

The Blaine County commissioners took a local stance against the death penalty Tuesday, resolving to withdraw from Idaho's Capital Crimes Defense Fund in the hope of stymying county prosecutors from pursuing execution in capital cases.

Created by the Legislature in 1998, the fund covers costs of lengthy, expensive trials in which the death penalty is sought. All 44 counties in Idaho currently participate.

That may soon change, after Commissioner Larry Schoen surprised his colleagues by objecting to a joint powers agreement that would have recommitted Blaine County to the program.

"I have come to a decision as a commissioner, and as an individual, that I don't think capital punishment is appropriate anymore in the United States given the imperfections in our judicial system," Schoen said. "If our nonparticipation hamstrings the prosecuting attorney in pursuing the death penalty, I'm OK with that.

"This is a way for our county to say we don't support the death penalty, and that we don't support the prosecutor seeking it in Blaine County."

It wouldn't have cost the county anything to stay in the program. Last year, the fund did not seek any money from Blaine County.

But withdrawing gives a county government the rare opportunity to weigh in on a state issue: Though the death penalty is legal in Idaho, it is expensive to impose, and removing the insurance policy on its prosecution would choke funding and make a capital sentence practically impossible to pursue in local cases, Schoen said.

"To me, it's more than a political statement," Commissioner Angenie McCleary said. "This seems like an effective tool to curtail whether the death penalty is pursued in Blaine County."

The death penalty is rarely sought in Idaho, and even more seldom used.

Since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court lifted its de-facto moratorium on capital punishment, Idaho has executed 3 people, most recently in 2012. Currently, 8 inmates sit on death row; the most recent was sentenced in 2004.

In Blaine County's most high-profile case, neither the death penalty nor the state funding were available.

Former Bellevue resident Sarah Johnson was 16 - a minor - when she shot her parents in 2003. Johnson was found guilty in 2005, though appeals are still ongoing. The trial cost Blaine County $2 million, according to County Clerk JoLynn Drage. (The county paid for both the defense and prosecution in the case.) While the Capital Crimes Defense Fund can serve as insurance against pricey, protracted court battles, it also opens up access to the State Appellate Public Defender's Office, which dedicates 12 lawyers to cover the post-conviction counsel and costs of indigent defendants guilty of felonies after the first $10,000.

Last fall, Ada County voted to pull out of the fund before realizing how dependent it was on those services: In fiscal 2017, the office covered some 167 appeals, providing work worth $568,000 that otherwise would have fallen to the county, according to a report from State Appellate Public Defender Eric Fredericksen. (Ada also has 2 death-row inmates in appeals, who accounted for roughly another $130,000.)

"We're a state-run office - the state funds us," Fredericksen said. "But, it ends up saving the counties a bunch of money, since they don't have to contract with lawyers to handle these appeals."

Contacted Tuesday afternoon, the Public Defender's Office couldn't say how many such cases it handled in Blaine County, though the number is likely much lower than Ada. But, over 4 separate appeals in the Sarah Johnson case, the office has covered $153,000 in defense costs that would have otherwise fallen to the county, Fredericksen said.

Faced with their own 6-figure bill, Ada's commissioners reversed course in November, re-enlisting with the fund.

Closing the discussion Tuesday, the board instructed Schoen to write a letter serving notice of the county's decision to leave.

"We have the purse-string power to determine where things go," Commissioner Jacob Greenberg said. "That may impact our relationship with other elected officials, but it's our prerogative.

"I'm hoping we can get the rest of the state behind us, though I doubt it. We may stand alone on this."

Source: Idaho Mountain Express, January 3, 2018

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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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