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…

Pennsylvania: Suspect in fatal arson will not face death penalty

Preston Daquen Bonnett
WILKES-BARRE — Susan Major entered the courtroom Friday morning sobbing uncontrollably as the man accused of murdering her three sons sat shackled, waiting to learn if he would face the death penalty.

When Preston Daquen Bonnett, 27, found out prosecutors would not pursue capital punishment, he remained defiant and asserted his innocence.

“Because they know I’m not guilty,” Bonnett said in court.

Bonnett, of Wilkes-Barre, is facing three counts each of arson and criminal homicide over the Oct. 25 fire at 60 Oakwood Drive, Laflin, that claimed the lives of brothers Erik Dupree, 16, Devon Major, 12, and Ezekiel Major, 7. Prosecutors allege Bonnett set fire to the family’s home because of an ongoing dispute he had with their mother, his ex-girlfriend Susan Major, 48.

The announcement that prosecutors will not seek the death penalty came during Bonnett’s formal arraignment Friday morning, during which he pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Citing the pending criminal case, Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis declined to discuss specifics about the decision to forgo a capital prosecution, but said her team unanimously agreed to do so and that the victims’ family supported the move.

“As horrific as this case may be, when determining whether or not we should seek the death penalty we don’t simply just look at the crime and the tragic result that may empower emotions in everyone, especially myself,” Salavantis said. “As district attorney, I have an ethical obligation to look at the standard and whether or not we can seek the highest charge by law.”

For prosecutors to have secured a death sentence, they would first have needed to get a first-degree murder conviction against Bonnett. Legal experts say that would mean proving he knew the boys were inside and intended to kill them, not that he merely sought to burn down the house.

During Friday’s hearing, Bonnett alleged his rights were being violated because the arraignment proceeded in the absence of his lawyer and called out First Assistant District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce as well as the news media for not using the word “alleged” freely enough during descriptions of the allegations against him.

“They’re trying to paint a picture of me, saying I did do these things,” Bonnett said. 

Vough assured Bonnett that the charges against him are allegations that must be proven before a jury.

According to court documents, Bonnett met Major through a personal ad on Craigslist in 2015. A few months later, they were charged with using fraudulent debit cards to buy gift cards and other items, and they each pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor theft charge.

Court documents show that over the summer, Major agreed to let Tyla Marie Griffin, 28, of Wilkes-Barre, stay in her home. But after Griffin brought Bonnett in without permission, Major kicked the pair out, initiating a heated exchange during which Griffin allegedly punched out a window.

Major called the police, and as a result of materials found in Bonnett’s possession — including a device used to make fraudulent credit cards, blank cards and legal documents — Bonnett and Griffin were charged with felony counts of access device fraud and conspiracy.

Prosecutors allege that less than two weeks before the deadly fire, Bonnett returned to the home and threw a beer bottle through a window.

The evening of Oct. 25, he was back, according to prosecutors. At 7:09 p.m., an audibly distressed Erik made a call for help.

“He’s not supposed to be here, sir. I’m very scared,” Erik said in a recording of the 911 call previously played in court. “Please hurry. Please.”

Surveillance footage taken from inside the home shows smoke rapidly filling the building as the sound of banging and crashing grows, along with the voice of someone screaming.

“Help! Help! Please save us!” the voice shouts mere seconds before the lights of an emergency vehicle appear in the street out front.

According to police, Erik reached the front door, leaving blackened hand prints behind on the door before he was overcome by smoke.

Bonnett is being held without bail at the Luzerne County Correctional Facility pending trial.

Source: The Citizens' Voice, James Halpin, January 6, 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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In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning