Gary Haugen probably deserves to die for his crimes. At 19 years old he beat the father of his girlfriend to death with a baseball bat and a hammer. But a life in prison didn't thwart Haugen's homicidal tendencies. He and a fellow prisoner murdered another inmate in 2003, stabbing the victim more than 80 times and crushing his skull.
Apparently, Haugen agrees with the sentiment, and the death sentence that was handed down in 2007. Unlike the dozens of others on Oregon's death row, Haugen decided to remove the obstacles and appeals that can effectively stymie the administration of a lethal injection, Oregon's preferred method of capital punishment. Over his attorneys' objections, Haugen effectively set a Dec. 6 execution date. And, until last week, it appeared as though Haugen would get his death wish. The Supreme Court, amid questions of Haugen's mental competence, declined to step in. The death chamber was readied. Press access plans were issued to the media that was clamoring to report on the first death sentence to be carried out in more than a decade.
Then something unexpected happened. Gov. Kitzhaber, who had allowed two executions during his first term in the 1990s and had been mum on Haugen's case, called a news conference and announced that he was placing a moratorium on state-sanctioned killings for the remainder of his term, beginning with Haugen.
It was a difficult and courageous decision. According to news reports of the recent press conference, Kitzhaber was visibly emotional during the announcement. The Governor had waited until the proverbial 11th hour to intervene in the case, and we don't blame him. The move opens him up to both praise and criticism. We're in the former category, not because we think Haugen deserves sympathy or a lesser fate. To the contrary. Unlike some other high-profile death penalty cases, there is no question of Haugen's guilt. Rather, we share the governor's belief that the death penalty is an inherently flawed vehicle for justice and one that is unevenly applied in Oregon and around the country. It's a penalty largely reserved for the poor, the mentally challenged and minorities. Not surprisingly, blacks make up the largest number of death penalty executions in the Unites States, accounting for roughly 45 percent of all executions since 1976, according to the not-for-profit Death Penalty Information Center.
Just as important is the race of the victim. More than three quarters of all death penalty cases since 1976 involved white victims and black defendants.
There are more numbers, too, such as the growing number of death row inmates exonerated by new forensic evidence. But they all add up to the same conclusion: the death penalty system in America is broken. That's the same conclusion that's been drawn by the New York State Supreme Court, which outlawed executions a decade ago and by the state of New Mexico that followed suit shortly thereafter.
Oregon is now the fifth state to halt, at least temporarily, executions. And as more cases of death row inmates being exonerated emerge, we expect more states to follow suit. In the meantime, we're giving Gov. John Kitzhaber the Glass Slipper for his principled stand. We hope that it's a first step in a movement to put the death penalty to rest in Oregon for good.