Death Penalty in Oregon

Why I Oppose The Death Penalty

Edwin J Peterson, Former Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court

In 1978 and 1984, along with most Oregon voters, I voted for and supported the death penalty initiative that reinstated the death penalty in Oregon. Today I don’t. Oregon’s death penalty system is dysfunctional, expensive, unworkable and unfair. Even supporters of the death penalty–I was one–should vote to end the Dickensian system we have in Oregon.

Dysfunctional. I was appointed to the Supreme Court of Oregon in 1979. In that same year John Wayne Quinn was sentenced to death in an Oregon trial court. In 1981, on Quinn’s appeal, the Oregon Supreme Court held that the 1978 law was unconstitutional. Quinn’s conviction was reversed. On remand he was sentenced to life in prison.

The Quinn decision required an amendment to Oregon’s death penalty law, which, as a citizen, I again voted for in 1984.

Since the restoration of the Oregon death penalty in 1978, 65 persons have been sentenced to death. Some of the convictions have been reversed. Since 1978, not one of those 65 persons has been involuntarily executed. (Two `volunteers’ gave up their appeals and were executed.) Today there are 37 persons on Death Row. Those on Death Row, on average, have been there for over 15 years. None of the appeal rights of the 37 persons on Death Row have been exhausted. None! And it will be years before their appeals are exhausted.

Unworkable. Procedurally, the Oregon death penalty system is unworkable. The rules are continually changing. Randy Guzek’s case is one example. In 1988, Guzek was convicted of murdering a couple in Terrebonne, Oregon. He was sentenced to death. Since 1988, Guzek has had four appeals to the Supreme Court of Oregon, three reversals of his death penalty sentences, and four sentences to die. Today, 25 years from the date of his first conviction in 1988, Guzek’s fourth appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court is pending. He has been on Death Row for 24 years. He is still on Step One of his nine possible appeals, nowhere close to the end of his possible appeals.

Expensive. Guzek’s case alone had cost the taxpayers of Oregon $2.2 million by 2009. It has been estimated that the appeal process takes from 25 to 50 years, at a total cost per case of $10 million. Changes of the death penalty law by court decisions and legislative acts have led to more appeals. Some might argue that our death penalty system is a fair employment bill for death penalty lawyers. The average cost of defending a death penalty case is $438,651.

Under current law, an Oregon defendant sentenced to death has no fewer than nine separate appeals. The reversal rate is high. Not one of the 37 persons on Death Row has yet exhausted his appeal rights! There is little reason to believe that any defendant now on Oregon’s Death Row will ever be executed. We taxpayers pay nearly all of the expenses of prosecuting and defending death-penalty cases. A New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission concluded that the state would save $1.3 million per prisoner in incarceration costs if the death penalty were abolished and a life-without-possibility-of-parole system implemented. Might not the money be better spent on better things?

Unfair. The same crime may be treated differently based on the county in which the crime takes place. One district attorney, heralded as being “tough on crime,” may pursue a death penalty, while another believes that life in prison without parole provides adequate punishment and safety to the citizens. With death on the table, fairness must be achieved. Under our system, fairness is difficult to achieve.

Mistakes are made. The system sets up the possibility of a fatal mistake–killing an innocent person. Nationally, there have been 142 exonerations of people awaiting execution, persons found innocent of the crimes of which they were convicted. The majority of Oregon death penalty convictions have been reversed. Does this provide confidence in the system?

We have an inefficient, ineffective, dysfunctional system. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the system. Eighteen states have repealed their death penalty laws (Maryland most recently in 2013). Let’s admit it. Our system has failed. Recognize it and repeal Oregon’s death penalty.


Notes by Sally Hollemon

Caren Jackson and Frank Thompson spoke at the Morning Unit on February 19, 2014. Mr. Thompson, retired Superintendent of the Oregon Penitentiary, began: To be good public policy, the death penalty should be less costly than the alternatives and should be a deterrence to murder, but it is neither.

The following points came out during the meeting:

  • The men on death row tend to be black and/or poor.
  • The men who received a sentence of life with or without parole may have done an equally heinous (or worse) crime.
  • The men on death row don’t have interaction with other inmates, which is socially isolating, but they are also safer because they don’t have to deal with other inmates.
  • The men on death row are easier for staff to deal with than the general prison population because

º They are older; people age out of crime. The most dangerous inmates are those 18-35; they have macho attitudes and think they are immortal.
º There is a higher ratio of staff to inmates on death row because corrections officials don’t want the inmate to commit suicide and they don’t want to have any lawsuits.

  • Life without parole is a greater punishment than death because the inmate has to live the rest of his life in prison with the knowledge of what he did–just as the families of his victim(s) have to live with their sad memories.
  • Death-penalty cases are very expensive, primarily because of all the appeals. The millions of dollars spent on one case could better be used to increase the number of police, to investigate cold cases (many murders are never solved), to increase school funding, etc.
  • Eliminating the appeals is not an option for a democratic society. While it’s important to punish the wrong-doers, it’s also important to protect the innocent.
  • The murder rate has been going down in the U.S. for the past fifteen years. No one is sure why, but the rate has gone down at the same rate on average in states with the death penalty as in states without the death penalty.

The goal for Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (OADP) is to have a measure on the November 2016 ballot asking Oregon voters to repeal the death penalty; it is in Oregon’s Constitution and so requires a vote of the people. Much education of Oregonians about this issue will be require

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