29 Sep

Oregon slow to address capital punishment, but the pope is on it

For whatever reason, Pope Francis, in his historic visit to the United States last week, did not make it to Portland.

Maybe nobody told him about our South American food carts, or someone was worried about the Popemobile getting bogged down in a sea of bicycles.

But as he spoke to Congress Thursday, there were passages that seemed to speak directly to us.

When he spoke about immigrants – “We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners… When the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past” – Francis might have found a more responsive audience here than among most of the congressmen and senators he was addressing.

When he pleaded for steps “to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity,” he may not have made much progress among senators who consider global warming “the greatest hoax in human history.” But Francis might have gotten a closer hearing in a place that, once again, has just had the hottest summer in its history, on a coast in the midst of a near-Biblical drought, with countless counties declared disaster zones.
Francis may have spoken most topically to Oregon when he declared his determination “from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty… Recently, my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”

Rehabilitation of those on Oregon’s Death Row may seem a distant and implausible vision. But Francis was speaking in the same week as yet another development in Oregon’s continuing inability to find an acceptable way of dealing with the death penalty, leading to a deepening discomfort with having one at all.

Several years ago, former Gov. John Kitzhaber – who during the 1990s became the only Oregon governor in the last 50 years to sign execution orders, although our Death Row has become a high-density residential area – announced that as long as he was governor, there would be no more executions. Some people complained that Kitzhaber hadn’t said this when running for the job in 2010, but his clear opposition to capital punishment didn’t keep him from being re-elected in 2014.

(What kept him from still being governor, of course, was something else entirely.)
When Secretary of State Kate Brown succeeded Kitzhaber in February, she said she would continue the execution moratorium while setting up a process to assess it. As The Oregon’s Denis C. Theriault reported last week, not much has happened to move things along. Brown spokeswoman Kristen Grainger did tell Theriault that Brown has directed her office attorney, Ben Souede, to seek “legal advice about the practical aspects related to capital punishment in Oregon,” although there might not be any actual recommendations until deep into next year, when Brown runs for reelection.

The problems with Oregon’s death penalty have long been clear: The highly expensive legal process takes decades; Oregon has 34 inmates on Death Row, but no executions actually expected for years; the only executions scheduled in the decades since the death penalty was restored were at the request of the convict, not exactly a testament to its deterrent power.

This year, a similar situation caused the legislature in deep-red Nebraska to abolish its death penalty, and then override the governor’s veto. Last month, the Connecticut Supreme Court, ruling that the state’s recent abolition extended to all its Death Row inmates, quoted Ninth Circuit appeals judge Alex Kosinski: “[W]e have little more than an illusion of a death penalty in this country. … Whatever purposes the death penalty is said to serve— deterrence, retribution, assuaging the pain suffered by victims’ families—these purposes are not served by the system as it now operates.”

From either the pope’s principles or Kosinski’s reality, it’s hard to argue for Oregon to continue pretending to have capital punishment.

“A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism,” Francis said Thursday. “A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces.”

On a number of issues, this advice might have arrived too late for this Congress.

But it might still work in Salem.

NOTE: This commentary appeared in the Sunday Oregonian,9/27/15.

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