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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…

Editorial: Florida’s death penalty fading away on its own

Florida's death row
Florida lawmakers may never take the death penalty off the books, but stronger forces are steadily eroding this inhumane, outdated tool of injustice. Court rulings, subsequent changes to law and waning public support have significantly suppressed the number of death sentences sought and handed down in state courts. While Florida should have abolished the death penalty long ago, its descent into obsolescence may be the next best thing.

Florida has executed 96 people since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. The system ground to a halt in 2016 with another landmark ruling that invalidated Florida’s long-standing, convoluted scheme for imposing death sentences. Previously, juries could recommend putting a defendant to death by a simple majority, with the ultimate decision left up to the judge. In Hurst v. Florida, the Supreme Court found that process was unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges. The Legislature responded by amending state law to require 10 out of 12 jurors to agree on a death sentence, but the state Supreme Court struck it down. So last year lawmakers finally passed legislation requiring a unanimous decision to sentence someone to death. While the death penalty should be repealed, this may be the next-best outcome.

Between the two court rulings, dozens of cases had to be revisited. Many defendants were eligible for resentencing, but another decision by the state Supreme Court left others condemned to death under precedent that is no longer considered constitutional. That’s one of the practical problems with the death penalty: it is to often applied unevenly, violating the basic tenet of equal justice under the law.

Decades of research and evidence show that capital cases consume inordinate time and money, depriving victims’ families of closure. The death penalty does not act as a deterrent, is applied arbitrarily and is too vulnerable to racial bias and error. Florida leads the nation in death row exonerations with 27, a shameful record that means there surely have been innocent people executed.

Yet Republican leaders and many prosecutors still insist the death penalty is appropriate in "the worst of the worst" cases. But empaneling 12 people on a jury who all agree on what that constitutes has proven difficult for prosecutors. Last year, just three death sentences were handed down in Florida, compared with 22 five years earlier. Adam Matos, who murdered four people in Pasco County in 2014, including the mother of his son, was sentenced to life in prison when one juror voted against death. Experts say to expect more such outcomes — fewer death sentences handed down as fewer are sought in the first place.

That is hardly a blueprint for just and reasoned public policy. But it’s preferable to the system that was in place for decades, which cost taxpayers millions, delayed justice and deprived victims’ families of closure. At the time of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hurst decision, Florida had 389 inmates on death row, and four out of five were sent there by non-unanimous juries. The system was an unconstitutional quagmire then, and under the new system the death penalty is slowly fading away rather than being abruptly repealed.

Source: Tampa Bay Times, April 23, 2018


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but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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