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…

Delaware's last two death row inmates resentenced to life in prison

Delaware placed the remnants of its death penalty on the history shelves Tuesday when it modified the death sentences of two convicted murderers to life in prison.  

Michael R. Manley and David D. Stevenson, both 43, were sentenced after years of legal battles fighting a conviction that brought the death sentence for killing a Macy's security officer in 1995. 

"No, your honor," both men responded when asked by Superior Court Judge Paul R. Wallace if they had anything to say. 

Manley and Stevenson were the last men in Delaware living under a state-imposed death sentence, which was done away with after the state's top court found its death penalty unconstitutional on Aug. 2, 2016. The state Supreme Court ruling came months after the nation's top court struck down Florida's law because it gave judges – and not juries – the final say to impose a death sentence. 

Florida's law was similar to Delaware's law. 

Manley and Stevenson were convicted of first-degree murder in the Nov. 13, 1995, slaying of Kristopher Heath, a Macy's security officer who was about to testify against Stevenson in a theft case. Manley shot 25-year-old Heath at Stevenson's direction to prevent him from testifying.

The men received a death sentence in 1997 after a jury recommended execution. But the Delaware Supreme Court dismissed that sentence in 2001 after finding that the original judge had a conflict. In 2005, a new jury recommended death for the pair, voting 11-1 that Manley be put to death and 10-2 that Stevenson be executed.

Manley and Stevenson, who have been fighting their convictions since, were among 13 men on death row when the state Supreme Court's decision was issued in 2016.

All of the death sentences have now been modified, including that of convicted cop killer Derrick Powell, who last month was resentenced to life in prison. 

Opponents of the death penalty said they welcomed the final remnants of the ultimate punishment. 

"The penalty has not, nor has it ever been, about justice," said Chandra Pitts, president and CEO of One Village Alliance, a grassroots advocacy organization for young men and women.

The death penalty's implementation has been biased depending on the race of the victim, she said. 

A study in California found that those convicted of killing whites were more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death as those convicted of killing blacks and more than four times more likely as those convicted of killing Latinos, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

The center also points to a comprehensive study of the death penalty in North Carolina that found the odds of receiving a death sentence rose by 3.5 times among those defendants whose victims were white. 

"So it's not a question of compassion for criminals, or an eye for an eye, or for justice," Pitts said. "It's about where is justice for all of our victims."

While this chapter of Delaware's death penalty is coming to a close, there have been other times when the ultimate punishment had been done away with in the First State. 

In 1958, the state abolished capital punishment, but that repeal lasted only until 1961. Despite the death penalty's restoration, it was not used for decades.

That's because any prisoner who had been sentenced to death between 1961 and 1972 received an automatic reprieve following the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Furman vs. Georgia, which struck down all existing capital punishment statutes and required states to update their death penalty laws and trial procedures.

But even after Delaware changed its laws twice to comply with the ruling, no inmate was executed over the next 20 years. This was because the new statute required the unanimous vote of a jury to impose the death penalty and few such sentences were imposed.

Legislators passed a bill in 1991 that shifted the final decision about imposing the capital punishment to the judge, making it possible for the court to impose death even if there was a split vote among jurors.

Delaware lawmakers are again pushing to reinstate the statute amid an outcry over two law enforcement officers being killed last year – correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd and state police Cpl. Stephen J. Ballard.

State House lawmakers in May passed a revised death penalty statute that addresses the constitutional infirmities noted in the state and federal court rulings by requiring unanimous jury approval. The bill is now in the Senate, where it has been assigned to the Judicial & Community Affairs Committee.

"House Bill 125 is being blocked in the Senate Judicial & Community Affairs Committee, where it has been pending action since early last May," bill sponsor Steve Smyk, R-Milford, said in a statement. "It is my understanding that the chair of the committee, Senate Majority Leader Margaret Rose Henry, has been approached by legislators of both parties requesting that the measure be brought before the committee for consideration. Thus far, she has reportedly ignored these requests."

Source: Delaware Online, Esteban Parra, March 13, 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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