JUSTICE Martha Lee Walters asks a question March 14 during death penalty arguments related to inmate
Gary Haugen. AP photo
EUGENE — The Oregon Supreme Court is set to hear arguments Thursday from lawyers for a death-row inmate who wants to be executed and the governor, who refuses to let him die.
Gov. John Kitzhaber, who opposes capital punishment, regretted letting two other inmates be put to death and says he won’t allow it to happen again.
However, a lawyer for inmate Gary Haugen will argue that Kitzhaber exceeded his authority when he issued a temporary reprieve for the two-time murderer in 2011, delaying the execution until the governor leaves office.
The governor argues 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.
Kitzhaber has urged a statewide vote on abolishing the death penalty, and the Legislature could put it on the ballot in 2014.
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 turned down a chance last year to follow suit at the ballot box.
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’s justices won’t decide the legality of the death penalty itself, which has been extensively debated, but rather will consider the sparsely explored question of how much power the governor has to reduce, delay or eliminate criminal sentences.
Haugen was sentenced to death along with an accomplice in 2007 for the jailhouse murder of a fellow inmate, who was found with stab wounds and a crushed skull in the prison band room. At the time, Haugen was serving a life sentence for fatally beating his former girlfriend’s mother in 1981.
After the state Supreme Court upheld his death sentence, Haugen announced in 2011 that he would voluntarily waive legal appeals that could have delayed his execution. He said the move was a protest against a criminal justice system he views as broken and inequitable.
Haugen was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection in December 2011, but Kitzhaber issued a reprieve two weeks before the sentence was to be carried out, citing his own moral opposition to capital punishment and problems he sees with Oregon’s death-penalty process.
Haugen challenged the reprieve last year, saying it was invalid because he refused to accept it. The trial court judge agreed.
At the Supreme Court, Haugen’s lawyer, Harrison Latto, is expected to argue that his client must accept the reprieve for it to be valid, and that it’s an illegal attempt by Kitzhaber to nullify a law he doesn’t like.
Latto also says denying Haugen the right to decide for himself whether to live or die would deprive him of the basic human right to make his own decisions.
“The governor purports to act out of the highest righteousness, but his unwanted reprieve is actually a profound affront to the plaintiff’s inalienable right as a human being to form and then act according to his own conceptions about the intimate, unfathomable questions of life and death,” Latto wrote in his legal brief.
Kitzhaber’s lawyer, solicitor general Anna Joyce, reached back to the English monarchy, arguing that Kitzhaber’s clemency power stems from the king’s absolute authority to issue clemency.
The U.S. Supreme Court has taken opposing positions on the president’s clemency power, concluding in 1833 that a pardon can be rejected but finding in 1951 that “the public welfare, not his consent determines what shall be done.”
The Oregon Supreme Court is not required to follow the U.S. Supreme Court’s evolution on that issue.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.