The Oregon Death Penalty--2007
Bill Long 5/12/07
An Encyclopedia Article
In 2001 my book on the history of the Oregon death penalty was published. Entitled A Tortured History: The Story of Capital Punishment in Oregon, the book quickly won a prize and was somewhat widely reviewed in Oregon. It was the first (and last) of its kind, though others have picked up on the theme by pursuing the history of executions in early Oregon history (Diane Goeres-Gardner's 2005 book Necktie Parties examines legal executions in Oregon from 1859-1903).
Well, someone has now come up with the great idea of doing an Oregon encylopedia. It is a joint project between the Oregon History Center and Portland State University. It will be called the Oregon Encyclopedia Project, and should be released during Oregon's sesquicentennial year--2009. I was asked to write the entry on capital punishment. I was told to keep it to 400 words, a near-impossible task.
So, here is the 650 or so words that I submitted for that article. I give it here not only because I don't think it will take away from your interest in rushing out and buying the full edition when it comes out, but it will probably be longer than the actual article when it appears (an online pilot project version, including my article, is projected to be posted sometime during Summer 2007). If you have any comments on it, let me know, but this is what I plan to say.
The Oregon Death Penalty
William R. Long, M. Div., Ph. D., J. D.
Oregon has had a death penalty for most of its history as a state, though it has only executed two people in the last 45 years and both of these executions (1996, 1997) were of men who gave up their rights early in the appellate process. At present there are 34 men on death row in Oregon, with a few others that may return to death row after their cases are reconsidered at the county level. The history of Oregon's death penalty is suffused with interesting and tortuous twists, many of which have been effected by a vote of the people through the initiative petition process.
History of the Death Penalty In Oregon Until 1964
Oregon's death penalty for what was then called first-degree murder reaches back to the time of provisional (1843-49) and territorial (1849-59) government. Death penalty authorization was statutory and not constitutional. From 1859-1903 executions were done at the county level, with an 1874 statute requiring that the executions be performed on the grounds of the county courthouse. Executions in America in the late 19th century were popular spectacles, as tickets were sold, guards were bribed and newspapers covered in detail the last moments of the condemned person's life. As a result of two Portland executions in 1902 the Oregon Legislature required that executions be done out of public sight at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, beginning in 1903.
The first effort to abolish the death penalty in Oregon was through initiative petition in 1912. It failed by a 60-40% margin. A spate of executions in 1913-1914 under the Governorship of Oswald West, the only governor of Oregon until then who had vowed never to execute anyone under his watch, led to another initiative petition effort to repeal the penalty, which narrowly succeeded in 1914. From 1914-1920, Oregon had no death penalty.
Efforts to abolish the penalty again were launched in the late 1950s as both gubernatorial candidates, Robert Holmes and Mark O. Hatfield, were staunch opponents of capital punishment. Hatfield, elected in 1958, authorized the final Oregon execution until the 1990s when he refused to intervene in a 1963 execution. An initiative petition to eliminate capital punishment passed by a 60-40% margin in November 1964.
The Oregon Death Penalty Since 1964
Efforts to restore the death penalty in Oregon surfaced in the early 1970s, but it wasn't until 1978 that Oregon voters again restored capital punishment by a 65-35% margin. The Oregon Supreme Court threw out the measure in January 1981, and the people again voted to reinstate the penalty in November 1984 (75-25%). The statute adopted by popular vote was modeled on the Texas capital punishment statute. There have not been any serious attempts to bring a vote to the people on capital punishment since then.
When the Oregon death penalty was presented for popular vote in 1978 and 1984, two of the arguments used by proponents were that the death penalty would be a cheaper and quicker alternative than other judicial options for those who committed aggravated murder (First degree murder was recharacterized as "aggravated murder" in 1977). However, the passage of Oregon's post-conviction relief statute in 1959 opened up the door to a series of ten appeals or steps for the person sentenced to death before execution could take place. It wasn't until the 1990s, after the 1984 statute had been declared inadequate by 1989 United States Supreme Court decision (in a Texas case), that the costs of the Oregon death penalty began to be examined seriously. One study claimed that the costs of executing a person in Oregon could be as much as five times more than keeping the person alive through life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Oregon's 34 death penalty inmates are all males, with 20% being minority men. Though Oregon's death penalty has been in place since 1984, executions of condemned men will probably not commence, without other delays, until about 2012.
William R. Long, A Tortured History: The Story of Capital Punishment in Oregon (Eugene, OR: OCDLA, 2001)
Goeres-Gardner, Diane L., Necktie Parties: Legal Executions in Oregon, 1859-1905 (Caxton Press, 2005).