Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Surreal Reflections on the Death Penalty

John Kitzhaber sat in his Capitol office surrounded by bulky, temporary telephone lines. It was early autumn, leaves were falling and days were growing shorter. But for the governor in his first term in office, time stood still. He was on a surreal death watch.

An emergency room physician from Roseburg, Kitzhaber had been trained to save lives. Now his mind pictured how the same procedures he used to rescue someone with serious injuries in emergency rooms would be employed to give a lethal injection to convicted serial murderer Douglas Franklin Wright in a death chamber.

Sitting alone in his office, Kitzhaber reflected back on his successful gubernatorial campaign. He recalled the subject of the death penalty came up occasionally, but it never occurred to him he would face a moment when, at his word, a man would actually be put to death.

Late at night on September 6, 1996, the call came. Kitzhaber’s director of corrections was on the line and asked whether the Governor had any reason to halt Wright’s execution. Kitzhaber said “no.” His word was passed on to the superintendent of the penitentiary who oversaw the execution. It was the first execution by lethal injection in Oregon history.

Kitzhaber, former Department of Corrections Director Dave Cook and former Superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary Frank Thompson recalled their respective roles in Wright’s execution at a recent forum sponsored by Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

All three said the execution of Wright and, in the following year, of Harry Charles Moore left an indelible mark on their lives. Each man said he carried out the duty of his office. Thompson’s duty included selecting and training a staff, consisting mostly of military veterans like him, to carry out the execution successfully. They didn’t discuss with each other back then their doubts about the death penalty.

While all three men now openly oppose the death penalty, Cook and Thompson said they had no regrets over their roles in executing Wright and Moore. Kitzhaber said he regretted his decision.

“I was the only person on the planet who could have stopped the execution,” he told the forum. “I had alternatives, but I didn’t take any of them.” One of those options was to commute the death sentence and leave Wright in prison for the rest of his life with no chance for parole.

Kitzhaber said it gnawed at him that Wright forced his own execution by waiving further death penalty appeals. Wright basically asked to die. But Kitzhaber saw a deadly irony. Oregonians at the time were deeply divided over “death with dignity” legislation that would allow people with terminal illnesses and suffering excruciating pain to take their own lives. At the time, the only people who could legally commit suicide, Kitzhaber said, were prisoners on death row.

The greater irony may be that death gives killers their freedom. They no longer have to remember what they did and the faces of the people they murdered. Executions, on the other hand, live on to haunt the men and women who carry them out. It can never just be an official duty to take a life. It is an act, Thompson said, that leaves a lifelong emotional scar.

For families of murdered victims, executing their killers may provide some measure of satisfaction, but not all that much. State-sponsored vengeance doesn’t bring back the life of a loved one. Another death doesn’t bring closure   or restore the life potential of the person who was killed.

When Kitzhaber was elected to a third term as Oregon governor, he refused to sign the death warrant of Gary Haugen, who like Wright ended his appeals and asked to die, and placed a moratorium on all capital executions. Kitzhaber hoped his decision would spark a robust conversation about the death penalty. Regrettably, he said, it didn’t.

It has now been 20 years since Oregon executed someone from death row. And there are no stirrings to ask Oregonians to reverse a 1984 ballot measure and remove the death penalty from the state Constitution. It wouldn’t be the first time. Capital executions in Oregon were made explicitly legal in 1864, but outlawed from 1914-1920, 1964-1978 and 1981-1984. In between those years, 60 individuals have been executed, the last two at the hands of Kitzhaber.

The former governor says the death penalty is the ultimate symbol of flawed public policy. We spend millions, he says, to sequester death row inmates as they wait for years before exhausting all their appeals, but pinch pennies on prevention.

“We know how to identify kids at risk. We know how to address those risks.’ Kitzhaber says.” Yet we won’t spend the money to do it.”

Too often, some of those people we failed to help when it would have mattered wind up on death row. We wonder how people can become so savage and we weigh whether state-sponsored murder is the answer.

For the three men who oversaw the last executions in Oregon, there is no doubt there is a better way.







One comment on “Surreal Reflections on the Death Penalty

  1. Cynthia Wooten
    March 25, 2017

    Gary, I look forward to your essays, they are always provocative, poignant so well written. Thank you.
    I in fact remember this time and moral difficulty, pain.

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