Gov. Brown will commute all remaining death sentences to life in prison

SALEM, Ore. (KGW) — Outgoing Oregon Gov. Kate Brown will grant clemency to all of the state’s current death row inmates before she leaves office, commuting their sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The clemency order takes effect Wednesday and will apply to all 17 people currently on Oregon’s death row, according to the governor’s office, and will leave the state without anyone facing execution.

“Number one, it is immoral. Justice is not served by the state taking a life,” Brown said in an interview with KGW. “Secondly, its impact is inequitable depending upon where you live in the state and in this country. And third, it doesn’t make sense – it doesn’t prevent violent crime and it costs taxpayers thousands, millions of dollars.”

Although the death penalty is legal in Oregon, the state has not executed anyone since 1997, and throughout her seven years as governor, Brown has continued a moratorium on executions that her predecessor put in place.

Former Gov. John Kitzhaber announced the moratorium policy in 2011 when he stepped in to block the execution of convicted murderer Gary Haugen and stated that he would do the same for any other executions moving forward.

In a press conference at the time, Kitzhaber said the death penalty was morally wrong and that he regretted having allowed two executions in 1996 and 1997 during his prior term as governor – the only executions that the state has carried out in the past 50 years.

Oregon’s death penalty was further curtailed in 2019 when Brown signed Senate Bill 1013 into law, which substantially shortened the list of crimes that could qualify as aggravated murder, the only crime for which prosecutors can seek the death penalty. Brown said in a statement that her commutation order is “consistent with the near abolition of the death penalty” achieved under SB 1013.

SB 1013 wasn’t intended to be retroactive, but it prompted the Oregon Supreme Court to strike down an inmate’s death sentence last year, arguing that the passage of the law altered the “prevailing social standards” for capital punishment in the state. Experts predicted that the court ruling could prompt the state’s other death sentences to be overturned.

Brown’s commutation means that none of Oregon’s current death row inmates could be executed even if a future governor were to end the moratorium, which is itself an unlikely scenario for the time being –  Governor-elect Tina Kotek has stated that she will keep it in place, according to OPB and The Oregonian.

Brown has granted several high-profile commutations in the past – some of which have drawn intense criticism – but she drew a distinction regarding the death penalty clemency, declaring that her prior commutations were granted to individuals who demonstrated “extraordinary growth and rehabilitation,” but that this week’s order is purely in recognition that “the death penalty is immoral.”

The governor’s office released a list of the 17 individuals whose death sentences are being commuted to life in prison:

  • Jesse Caleb Compton
  • Clinton Wendess Cunningham
  • Randy Lee Guzek
  • Gary Dwayne Haugen
  • Michael James Hayward
  • Robert Paul Langley Jr.
  • Christian Michael Longo
  • Ernest Noland Lotches
  • Michael Martin McDonnell
  • Marco Antonio Montez
  • Horacio Alberto Reyes-Camarena
  • Ricardo Pineda Serrano
  • Matthew Dwight Thompson
  • Bruce Aldon Turnidge
  • Joshua Abraham Turnidge
  • Mike Spenser Washington Jr.
  • Tara Ellyssia Zyst (aka Karl Terry)

Capital punishment in Oregon

Oregon’s death penalty history is complicated, with several rounds of back-and-forth on the issue. Oregonians have voted twice to ban the practice and twice to reinstate it, most recently in 1984.

The state’s constitution didn’t originally include the death penalty, according to a summary on the Oregon Department of Corrections website, but it was adopted by statute in 1864. Oregon voters repealed it via constitutional amendment in 1914, then reinstated with a new amendment in 1920.

Voters again repealed the death penalty in 1964, then re-approved it in 1978, albeit by statute rather than constitutional amendment. The Oregon Supreme Court struck down the statute in 1981, but voters approved a new constitutional amendment to reinstate the death penalty in 1984.

Oregon has executed a total of 60 people since 1904, when executions began being carried out at the Oregon State Penitentiary rather than by county sheriffs, according to the Department of Corrections website.

The DOC listed 19 inmates with death sentences as of October 2021. At the time, the average amount of time spent on death row among those inmates was 19.6 years.

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