The death penalty is bubbling up as an issue again across the nation as some states grapple with the right thing to do: Should American citizens continue to face state-sanctioned killings?
In Oregon, Gov. John Kitzhaber has taken a stand against government execution.
Last week, Kitzhaber released a statement discussing a repeal of the death penalty in his state, asking constituents to take their moral compass into account when thinking about the law.
“Enacted by statute in 1864, the death penalty was repealed by voters in 1914, restored in 1920, outlawed again by voters in 1964, re-enacted in 1978, deemed unconstitutional by the Oregon Supreme Court in 1981 and again reinstated in 1984,” said Kitzhaber. “It has been carried out just twice in last 49 years in Oregon. Both were during my first administration as governor, one in 1996 and the other in 1997.
“I allowed those sentences to be carried out despite my personal opposition to the death penalty,” Kitzhaber continued. “I was torn between my personal convictions about the morality of capital punishment and my oath to uphold the Oregon constitution.
“They were the most agonizing and difficult decisions I have made as governor and I have revisited and questioned them over and over again during the past 14 years. I do not believe that those executions made us safer; certainly they did not make us nobler as a society. I simply cannot participate once again in something I believe to be morally wrong,” he said.
But the family of Mary Archer, who was raped and beaten to death by Gary Haugen, is seething after the inmate’s execution, scheduled for Dec. 6, was halted.
“It just made no sense to me whatsoever,” Kathy Pratt, one of Archer’s daughters, told KGW television in Portland. “There just doesn’t seem to be any legal or logical reason other than his personal opinion, which he feels is more important than anybody and anything else.” Archer’s ex-husband, Ard Pratt, called Kitzhaber a coward.
Oregon currently has 37 inmates on death row. According to the Associated Press, the state is now the fifth to halt executions since 2007.
But Oregon isn’t the only state involved in death penalty drama.
It’s well known that Blacks, particularly Black men, have suffered disproportionately under America’s justice system, especially when it comes to capital punishment.
North Carolina, for example, has the sixth highest number of prisoners on death row. Of the 157 inmates facing capital punishment, 86 are African-American. When North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act was signed into law in 2009, it became a lightning rod for controversy. The law allows death row inmates to appeal their sentences on the basis that racial bias played a role in their fate.
The law also allows inmates to produce studies and statistics to court judges to make their case. A victory could reduce their sentence to life in prison. But the North Carolina state legislature was on the verge of ending a session that would reduce the law’s power.
Some recent revisions include placing limits on the type of statistics inmates can use during an appeal and requiring courts to find that prosecutors acted “with discriminatory purpose” when seeking a death penalty judgment. The possible revisions to the law have resulted in its opposition from civil rights and advocacy groups.
Last week, the NC Advocates for Justice and the NAACP, in a hand-delivered letter, called on Sen. Phil Berger to reaffirm his support and commitment to the Racial Justice Act.
In the letter, the organizations cite a Michigan State University study of capital cases in North Carolina. According to the study, when different circumstances are taken into account, the odds that individuals who killed white victims would receive the death penalty increased two and half times. Blacks and Native Americans were also more likely to face discrimination in several ways.
“The courts of North Carolina have been doing an exemplary job of managing litigation under the RJA, both in terms of avoiding unnecessary costs and in terms of expediting review of serious claims of racial discrimination,” read the letter. “Now is not the time for the General Assembly to tinker with the statute and create potentially new avenues of appeal.”
Currently, all but three of North Carolina’s death row inmates have appealed their respective sentences.