Gov. Kate Brown used her powers of clemency more than any of her predecessors; now she's taking capital punishment with her as she leaves.
As Governor Kate Brown prepares to hand over the reins to newly elected Tina Kotek, she has commuted the sentences of death row inmates and has ordered the state’s execution chamber be dismantled. Brown, who has used her authority to grant clemency to more incarcerated persons than any of her predecessors, called the death penalty “dysfunctional and immoral.”
It is worth noting that Brown did not pardon anybody on death row, but rather commuted their death sentences to life without the possibility of parole. OPB reports that all 17 prisoners who were awaiting their executions have had their sentences commuted, which went into effect on Wednesday, December 14.
Brown highlighted three reasons for her efforts to deconstruct the state’s capital punishment practices: that they are immoral, that they place unnecessary strain on taxpayer resources, and that they do not contribute to public safety. Brown commented to OPB:
“The death penalty has never been administered fairly or equitably in Oregon,” Brown said. “And in fact, it’s been quite arbitrary. And that is not how a criminal justice system should work.”
The outgoing governor noted that victims advocates from the Oregon Department of Justice are reaching out to the victims of those with commuted sentences and their families to notify them of the decision. While she expressed her sympathies to the victims, she reiterated the immorality of the state’s powers of execution:
“I have no way of knowing how to walk in these victims’ and their families’ shoes,” she said. “What has happened to them, their families has been brutal and horrific and appalling. My heart just aches for them. At the same time, it is immoral for the state to be in the business of executing people.”
The dismantling of Oregon’s capital punishment system has been years in the making. OPB cites only two executions that have taken place in Oregon over the last 50 years, with the last one occurring in 1997. Since then, governors have regularly moved to restrict the practice, going so far as to dissolve death row, in 2020.
Death Penalty Action
Death Penalty Action (DPA), a group that works to eliminate the death penalty in the United States, hailed the effort. Frank Thompson, a former Superintendent of Prisons in Oregon who is now on the DPA Board of Directors, called it a “tremendous moment.”
“The Death Penalty is simply a bad public policy on many levels. It does a disservice to everyone it touches, including the state workers in our corrections department whose job it is to carry out executions. No employee of the state should have to take on the burdens that come with killing a defenseless human being.”
Thompson, who presided over two executions between 1994 and 1998, was especially moved by the decision to dismantle the execution chamber:
“These are burdens that I and others like me in this country know too well, and that is why I am among a number of former executioners who have been working to abolish the death penalty in Oregon and across the United States. This announcement took me by surprise today, and I am grateful to have lived to see this moment. If I had one wish, it would be to be there personally to watch when the execution chamber whose construction I oversaw is officially and permanently dismantled.”