John A. Kitzhaber
Ron Steiner asked me to join you tonight and share my own personal experience with the death penalty here in Oregon. I am glad to do that, but I also want to talk a bit about the prevention side … how we take steps, not just to find alternatives to the death penalty, but also to reduce the likelihood that people will end up in the criminal justice system in the first place. But I will start first with my own journey and to do that let me take you back to September 1996 when Oregon’s first execution in thirty-four years was set to take place.
As the date of the execution approached, two special phone lines were installed in my office. One line went to the Attorney General, so he could let me know if any last-minute evidence surfaced that would justify stopping the execution. The other direct line went to the execution chamber in the state penitentiary. The line to the prison is tested every thirty minutes, from nine in the evening to midnight. The line to the AG is tested at nine, ten, eleven and eleven thirty. So, there was a lot of time to think about what was about to happen.
I am sitting at the oak table with only a small lamp, which casts a soft yellow glow onto the oak surface. A small cocoon of light in a sea of darkness. It is very quiet. The only sound is the stirring of the State Police security team in their office down the hall, the sound of an occasional car passing on the street outside the capital, and the steady, ticking of the clock mounted on the east wall above the book cases, moving slowly, inevitably toward midnight.
The phone rings in the empty office. It’s 11:52 pm. The final call. It’s Dave Cook the Director of the Department of Corrections. I could feel the anxiety and horror building up inside me. “Governor, please give me your code word,” Dave says. I give him my code word, “Treadway.” He responds with his code word, “Wright.” “This is to inform you that we are about to proceed with the execution of Douglas F. Wright by lethal injection.” I respond, “I understand,” meaning that the execution will go forward. I hang up the phone and sit there by myself, knowing that Douglas Wright is now strapped down on gurney and lethal drugs are being pumped into his veins. Even now a man’s life is being taken by the state of Oregon, at that very moment. And I am passively letting it happen. Douglas Wright was pronounced dead at 12:16 am Friday, September 6, 1996.
That was the first execution I allowed to go forward, the first execution to take place in Oregon since 1962. The second execution was even more difficult, because I had almost eight months to think about it. It is 12:01 AM on May 16, 1997. By now Harry Moore is strapped down in the execution chamber at the Oregon state penitentiary about a mile from where I sit. The IVs are in place in his arm. All that remains is the final call from Dave. I find that I am crying, tears are flowing down my face … I do not know for who. I have called the Attorney General Myers to make sure there is no legal reason not to proceed. There is no legal reason — only moral ones.
12:15 AM. I just received call from David Cook who informed me that they were about to proceed with the execution of Jerry Lee Moore also known as Harry Moore by lethal injection. I replied, “I understand.” As I sit here writing this the execution is proceeding. One call and I could stop it and yet I do not. The drugs are flowing into Mr. Moore’s body and he is dying. Harry Moore was pronounced dead at 12:33 AM May 16, 1987. I feel very numb. I was passive as the State of Oregon put a second man to death. I spent much of my life learning to save people’s lives. Over the past six months I stood passively while two were taken.
It is easy, I imagine, to support the death penalty in the abstract, but I don’t think anyone can really understand it, unless they have sat alone in an office in the night and allowed an execution to go forward, knowing that you are the only person who could stop it. The deaths of Douglas Wright and Harry Moore have haunted me for twenty years. I was torn between upholding the Oregon Constitution, in which people had clearly ratified the death penalty, and my fundamental opposition to capital punishment. The responsibility I felt to uphold the constitution only made the decision clear—at least in 1996—it did not make it easy.
There is no question but that these people had done horrible things. Douglas Wright was sentenced to death for killing three homeless men. He later confessed to killing a fourth, and shortly before his execution he admitted to kidnapping and murdering a ten-year old boy named Luke Tredway. Harry Moore was sentenced to death for the 1992 murders of his half-sister and her former husband. I felt no compassion for them … and great compassion for the families of their victims. But it wasn’t their death sentence that brought them the execution chamber; it was their decision to give up their appeals. And these two deaths did not make Oregon a safer place or make us nobler as a people.
Fifteen years later, while serving my third term as governor, I was once again confronted with a prisoner on death row who gave up his appeals and demanded to be executed. Gary Haugen was sentenced to death for killing a fellow inmate while serving a life sentence for the murder of his girlfriend’s mother. He was just one of thirty-seven inmates on death row in 2011, some who been there for over twenty years, and all had many years of appeals left before there was even a remote possibility of carrying out their death sentences. Two other inmates had died of natural causes after spending more than a decade on death row.
Like Wright and Moore, Gary Haugen’s death warrant was signed after he gave up his appeals. In reality, Oregon’s system of capital punishment is one in which those condemned to death—not the courts—determine whether that sentence will be carried out. I recognize that not only does the Oregon Constitution authorize the death penalty, it also gives the governor the power reprieve and commutation. I refused to allow the execution to go forward and issued a temporary reprieve until the end of my term, announcing that Oregon would carry out no further executions while I was in office. It was the right thing to do and what I should have done 20 years ago. And I am here tonight because I want to do what I can to help find an alternative to the death penalty.
But there is more to it than that because I believe that those of us who oppose the death penalty also have a responsibility to recognize and address the fact that capital punishment is a symptom of a much deeper problem. The death penalty is the ultimate manifestation of an unjust society, the last step on a long, expensive, and irrational journey that spans an arc from birth to death, culminating—not with a successful and productive life—but with a lethal injection in the execution chamber.
When I was first elected governor in 1994, the citizens also passed Ballot Measure 11, which was a one-strike-and-you’re-out, get tough on crime, mandated sentencing measure. The campaign for Ballot Measure 11 was based on fear, not rational policy, and it passed with over sixty five percent of the vote. The measure necessitated that we build eight new prisons, because number of people who were going to get caught in its web was much larger, including kids as young as fifteen. But, to me, the real tragedy was that the cost of prison construction and operation sucked money out of the robust juvenile crime prevention program I had proposed in my first budget. It was at this point that I began to see how resources were being pulled out of preventing crime and put into incarcerating those who had committed crimes.
I went out to some of Oregon’s juvenile correctional facilities and talked to the kids, asked what was the one thing in their life that could have made a difference; that could have kept them from ending up in prison. And in almost every case, they expressed, in different words, the same thing: a loving, supporting environment, with a role model, a mentor who set examples and boundaries, and created sideboards. It is not very complicated. And yet most of these kids came from very unstable families, families strained by poverty, families torn by substance abuse, behavioral health issues and, often, domestic violence. They were set on the pathway to prison many years earlier, some of them to death row.
I recalled when I was an intern in Denver, doing shifts in the emergency room at Denver General Hospital. This was the big county hospital, also known as the “Knife and Gun Club,” because that is where the serious trauma ended up. I did tw0 months there, and it was bad news every day and every night, but it was also the best place to go if you were badly injured because we had so much experience, treating trauma. And I began to notice that we were seeing a lot of people, who were in the ER for medical problems that were the result of social problems, like domestic violence. But we treated only their medical problems, and then we sent them back to the same social environment from which they came. And were surprised when they showed up again a few weeks later. The point is, that much of what we see in our health care system and in our correctional system are just symptoms—the aftermath of problems that occurred first in hour families, our homes and our neighborhoods.
We blame our schools for poor graduation rates, and for children who are not ready to learn, without recognizing or acknowledging that the problem began much earlier. We view gang violence narrowly as a criminal problem when, in fact, it is a lack of opportunity problem; an unemployment problem; an unstable family problem; and a lack of hope problem.
The botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April 2014 by the State of Oklahoma raised questions about whether the drugs used in his execution violated the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. What is missing from this debate is the question of why it’s not cruel and unusual punishment to condemn millions of children to lives of poverty, school failure, economic struggle and, often, crime, by denying them the family supports they need to be successful.
The death penalty is often imposed on serial killers, like Douglas Wright; but the death penalty is also the ultimate manifestation of serial failures to invest in children and families. We will pay millions of dollars to take a convicted killer, someone who has done something horrible, through the appeals process to the execution chamber. We’re willing to pay that and we will always pay it. What we don’t pay for is money for innocent children to get a healthy start in life so they don’t end up in the same place. Which one is the greater crime?
Who is paying for the death penalty? Who is paying for fact that the United States, with five percent of the world’s population, hosts twenty percent of the world’s prison population? We are. We are paying for it directly and we’re paying for it indirectly by underfunding things that would reduce the cost of incarceration in the first place and allow us, as a nation, to capture the full human potential of each and every one of our citizens.
Contrary to what we are being told by our current political leadership, the greatest threat to America is not terrorism, immigration or our trade deficit with China. It is the fact that nearly sixty percent of our children are exposed, at a very early age, to one or more risk factors that can severely and profoundly compromise their ability to succeed. We cannot solve this problem by investing more money in prisons, but only by investing in our communities. And our children cannot be shielded from these risk factors by building a wall; but only by building strong, successful families.
So, let us recommit ourselves to finding alternatives to the death penalty; but let us also recommit ourselves—with the same passion and tenacity—to addressing the root causes; to making the kind of intentional and sustained investments in children and families that can truly make us a stronger and more just society.