PORTLAND, Ore. — On Tuesday, Oregon's outgoing Gov. Kate Brown officially took away the possibility of execution for the 17 people on death row in the state. Her clemency order took effect Wednesday.
This act will be among her final major actions as governor — commuting the death sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Those prisoners will never be free again, but will instead live out their days in a cell without the threat of lethal injection hanging over their heads.
Brown's decision drew a great deal of praise, and a not-insignificant amount of condemnation. And while some of that certainly falls along partisan lines, some of it might surprise you.
Oregon adopted the death penalty in 1864, five years after becoming a state. Voters repealed it in 1914, then promptly brought it back in 1920.
The death penalty was repealed once more in 1964, then reinstated in 1978. The Oregon Supreme Court struck it down in 1981, then voters carried it back in 1984. The see-saw dynamic became an enduring feature of Oregon's relationship with capital punishment.
Oregon has executed 60 people since 1904. And though the death penalty is still on the books today, Gov. John Kitzhaber issued a moratorium in 2011 that Gov. Kate Brown continued as her policy over the past seven years. She prevented any executions from being scheduled on her watch.
Among those pleased with Brown's decision to clear out Oregon's death row is Frank Thompson. He's a former superintendent of prisons for Oregon, having served during the 1990s.
"This is a tremendous moment for me," Thompson said. "I oversaw the construction of Oregon's death chamber, and I supervised the only two executions to take place in our state in the current death penalty era."
"The death penalty is simply a bad public policy on many levels," he continued. "It does a disservice to everyone it touches, including the state workers in our corrections department whose job it is to carry out executions."
Brown told KGW's Pat Dooris earlier this week that the Oregon Department of Corrections has taken apart the death chamber at her direction.
Another group cheering the governor's move is the Oregon Justice Resource Center. It has a stated goal of dismantling mass incarceration in Oregon.
"Capital punishment's racist origins in lynching and its continued discriminatory utilization are well-documented; the line that connects the racial terrorism of white supremacy to the death penalty is unequivocal," wrote Bobbin Singh, executive director of OJRC. "The disproportionate usage of the death penalty against people of color, particularly Black people, is a national source of shame from which Oregon is not immune."
Americans and the death penalty
Taken together, Americans tend to favor capital punishment. A Pew Research Center online survey in 2021 found that 60% of Americans strongly or somewhat favor the death penalty for convicted murderers. 64% said the death penalty is morally justified when someone has committed murder.
But the same survey had some troubling findings, taken in combination with those above. 56% of respondents believed that Black people are more likely than white people to be sentenced to death for committing similar crimes. 64% said the death penalty does not deter people from committing serious crimes, and 78% said that there is some risk that an innocent person will be executed.
Pew has also found a long-term decline in support for the death penalty for people convicted of murder. In 1996, 78% supported it. By the year 2020, 52% said they supported it.
It should be noted that Pew found an interesting variability between the polls they conducted online or over the phone, with those surveyed online showing a greater support for the death penalty. While the most recent survey was done online, those previous surveys included phone interviews.
As of July 2021, 27 states and the federal government have the death penalty. Thirteen of those jurisdictions, including Oregon, have not carried out an execution in a decade or more. But executions are still happening, including today. Just hours before this report, Mississippi executed a man for the rape and murder of a teenager.
There were a total of 2,570 people on death row at the end of 2019.
Gov. Brown's reasoning
Earlier this week, Pat Dooris spoke to Governor Kate Brown. She spoke about her decision to commute the sentences of those 17 people on Oregon's death row:
"It is immoral," Brown said of the death penalty. "Justice is not served by the state taking a life. Secondly, its impact is inequitable depending on 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. This is the path Oregon has been on for the past several years."
"The Oregon legislature passed Senate Bill 1013, substantially reducing the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty," she continued. "And the third thing is that under my leadership the Department of Corrections has dismantled death row. So at this point in time it makes sense that we take this next step. I know that not everyone will agree with my decision. But I hope it is a further step toward finality in this conversation."
The last time Oregon saw any legal movement on capital punishment, it was when voters reinstated the practice in 1984. So Dooris asked Gov. Brown — isn't her decision to eschew the death penalty thwarting the will of the people?
"Well, what is really clear is that Oregonians have elected governors who have opposed the death penalty for the last forty or fifty years," Brown replied. "And that, what is also clear is that the death penalty is not going to be used in Oregon. So, I believe that there are many Oregonians that share my values that it is inequitable, immoral and doesn't make sense for the state to take a life, particularly when it is irreversible. And I think it's incredibly important that our actions match our values in this circumstance."
Brown emphasized in the interview that her commutations would not mean any of these offenders will be released. They'll all be spending life in prison without parole.
"These folks have committed horrific crimes, let me be perfectly clear," she said. "They should spend the rest of their lives behind bars."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Brown's decision drew angry criticism in addition to the messages of support.
"Did the people of Oregon vote to end the death penalty?" asked Oregon Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp in a statement. "I don't recall that happening. This is another example of the Governor and the Democrats not abiding by the wishes of Oregonians. Even in the final days of her term, Brown continues to disrespect victims of the most violent crimes."
A KGW viewer named Greg who said he worked on one of the murder cases that the governor commuted wrote an even more fiery statement.
"So here we go again with Governor Brown and her personal agenda to literally burn the criminal justice system down," he wrote. "Her agenda from day one has been 'restorative justice.' Where is the justice for the victims and their families?"
The governor's order is no doubt devastating for some, if not all of the loved ones impacted by the offenders on Oregon's death row. The mayor of Woodburn issued a scathing statement, ripping into the governor's commutations.
Fourteen years ago this month, a father and son planted a bomb outside a bank in Woodburn, demanding money from the bank. Investigators took the bomb inside of the bank building and were working to disarm it when it exploded.
The blast killed Woodburn police captain Tom Tennant and Oregon State Police bomb technician William Hakim. Scott Russell, the police chief at the time, was severely injured.
The night after the blast, Woodburn's then-mayor Cathy Figley shared the community's deep sadness.
"We are here to make our pain a little better by sharing it — but also to direct our thoughts, our prayers and our love to our two families that are in pain," she said.
Bruce and Joshua Turner, the father and son who orchestrated the bank plot, were convicted in the case and given a death sentence. Now, like everyone else on death row, that sentence has been changed to life without the possibility of parole.
Woodburn's current mayor, Frank Lonergan, issued this statement in response:
"As Mayor, I was shocked and angered to learn that Governor Brown unilaterally commuted the death sentence of the two murders who committed these terrible crimes against our police officers and our community without consultations or apparent consideration of victims."
Lonergan noted that the Oregon Supreme Court had reviewed the case and upheld the convictions and sentence.
"Governor Brown's decision is an injustice to those who were affected by the bombing and a repudiation of Oregon voters who established the death penalty for those convicted of murdering innocent victims and police officers," he said.
The commutation also applied to Christian Longo, a man convicted of murdering his wife Mary Jane and their three children in Lincoln County back in 2003. He dumped their bodies in the ocean off the Oregon coast and fled to Mexico.
KGW investigative reporter Kyle Iboshi spoke to the sister of Mary Jane Longo this week. She said she was devastated to learn that Christian would be spared the death penalty.
Penny Baker Dupuie got an unexpected phone call Tuesday morning from a state employee with "bad news." That's how she found out that Christian Longo would live out his days in prison — and she would get no say in the matter. It was already a done deal.
"This isn't someone receiving a sentence unjustly that may be innocent. This is someone who deserves to die for what they've done," said Dupuie. "If anyone deserves to die for their crime, it is Chris."
"Before this happened, I did not have an opinion on the death penalty. I did not feel that was my decision to make about anyone," she continued. "After this happened, I have an opinion on the death penalty. Chris deserves to be dead for what he did. My family will no longer feel safe until Chris is no longer part of this world. He has done so much damage and continues to do damage — and he's been behind bars for 20 years."
Dupuie argues that Gov. Brown should have consulted with families affected by the commutations, saying that many are left devastated by the fact that so much was taken from them, only for a death sentence to be wiped away with the stroke of a pen.
"I think she needs to see some pictures and videos of the lives that were lost," Dupuie said.