SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon’s governor can deny execution for a death row inmate who wants to die, the state’s highest court ruled Thursday, affirming a gubernatorial power that has been at the center of a debate over the morality of capital punishment.
The ruling settles an argument between Gov. John Kitzhaber and Gary Haugen, who was convicted of two murders, over whether Kitzhaber had the power to grant a reprieve that Haugen did not want.
Kitzhaber, a Democrat, opposes the death penalty and intervened weeks before Haugen was scheduled to be die by lethal injection in 2011. The governor vowed to block any execution during his term in office and urged a statewide vote on abolishing the death penalty.
The Legislature has shown little interest in putting it on the ballot in 2014. Kitzhaber renewed his request after the ruling Thursday, saying capital punishment “has devolved into an unworkable system that fails to meet the basic standards of justice.”
“I am still convinced that we can find a better solution that holds offenders accountable and keeps society safe, supports the victims of crime and their families and reflects Oregon values,” Kitzhaber said in a statement.
Haugen said the reprieve was invalid because he refused to accept it. He also argued that it wasn’t actually a reprieve but rather an illegal attempt by the governor to nullify a law he didn’t like.
Kitzhaber argued that his clemency power is absolute, and nobody — certainly not an inmate on death row — can prevent him from doing what he believes to be in the state’s best interest.
The court said there’s nothing in the Oregon constitution giving an inmate a right to reject clemency, and Kitzhaber was within his authority.
“The executive power to grant clemency flows from the constitution and is one of the governor’s only checks on another branch of government,” Chief Justice Thomas Balmer wrote.
The reprieve expires when Kitzhaber leaves office. His term ends in January 2015, and he hasn’t said whether he’ll run for another four-year term.
Haugen won’t be executed immediately once the reprieve expires. A judge would have to issue a death warrant and determine whether Haugen is competent to disregard legal advice and waive his right to appeal.
He was twice found competent in 2011 despite arguments by former attorneys that he needed further examination.
Haugen was sentenced to death with an accomplice in 2007 for the jailhouse murder of a fellow inmate. At the time, Haugen was serving a life sentence for fatally beating his former girlfriend’s mother in 1981.
He has written to court officials since 2008 asking to drop his appeals, complaining about a “costly broken system” and a criminal justice process he calls arbitrary and vindictive.
Americans and their elected representatives have expressed mixed feelings about the death penalty. Lawmakers abolished capital punishment in New Mexico, New Jersey and Connecticut, but Californians voted to keep it last year.
In 2000, then-Gov. George Ryan of Illinois issued a moratorium on the death penalty after numerous condemned inmates were exonerated. The Legislature abolished capital punishment more than a decade later.
Oregon has executed two inmates since voters reinstated the death penalty in 1984. Both, like Haugen, waived their appeals in the late 1990s. Kitzhaber, who was governor then, declined to intervene — a decision he now regrets.