In a September 7 debate among the GOP presidential hopefuls, Texas Governor Rick Perry seemed quite proud of leading the country in death row executions. He indicated that he loses no sleep over the possibility of executing an innocent person. This is despite the fact that we now know that at least one innocent man—Cameron Todd Willingham—had died by lethal injection on Perry’s watch.
In sharp contrast, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber wants to take no such chance. On November 22, Kitzhaber announced that he would allow no more executions through the end of his time in office.
During a previous term as Oregon’s governor in the 1990s, Kitzhaber presided over two executions, despite personal doubts about the morality of the death penalty. Kitzhaber had this to say about those executions: “They were the most agonizing and difficult decisions I have made as governor and I have revisited and questioned them over and over again during the past 14 years. I do not believe that those executions made us safer; and certainly they did not make us nobler as a society. And I simply cannot participate once again in something I believe to be morally wrong.”
Kitzhaber pointed to flaws in Oregon’s criminal justice system, which he described as “broken”: “Oregonians have a fundamental belief in fairness and justice—in swift and certain justice. The death penalty as practiced in Oregon is neither fair nor just; and it is not swift or certain. It is not applied equally to all.”
Indeed, studies in several states have shown that the death penalty is applied in a discriminatory, arbitrary, and uneven manner, and is used disproportionately against racial minorities and the poor. For example, a 1998 study of death sentences in Philadelphia found that African-American defendants were almost four times more likely to receive the death penalty than were people of other ethnic origins who committed similar crimes. That’s not justice; it’s discrimination.
Human rights group Amnesty International, which describes the death penalty as “the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights,” hailed Kitzhaber’s decision. Furthermore, said Rob Freer, Amnesty International’s USA researcher, “Oregon’s state legislature should seize the opportunity provided by Governor Kitzhaber and turn this temporary moratorium into permanent abolition.”
Doing so would follow a growing trend in death penalty abolition in the U.S. Illinois abolished the death penalty in that state earlier this year, joining 15 other states and the District of Columbia which had previously halted the practice.
The trend extends also through much of the rest of the world. The U.S. is one of very, very few Western nations that still engage in state-sponsored killing. In maintaining the death penalty here in the U.S., we align ourselves with the other executing nations of the world such as Afghanistan, China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, and a handful of other countries known for their systematic violations of human rights.
This is apparently the kind of company that Rick Perry is proud to keep. Kudos to Governor Kitzhaber for moving his own state forward towards a more civilized approach to criminal justice.
Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views appear regularly in a variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites. Note that the ideas expressed here are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Amnesty International or any other organization with which she may be associated. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.