Letter: Gov. Brown should commute all death sentences

By Marc Hyden /

Over the past few years, several high-profile incidents have cast the national spotlight on different states’ broken death penalty programs, including Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma and Texas. However, recent events have brought capital punishment to the forefront of public debate in Oregon, too.

A newly commissioned study by a nonpartisan organization revealed the Oregon death penalty’s staggering costs, and due to the Oregon Innocence Project’s work, it appears very possible that a man languishing on Oregon’s death row may have been wrongly convicted.

Oregon has had a moratorium on executions since 2011, and that doesn’t appear likely to change anytime in the near future. However, that doesn’t mean that Oregonians don’t incur the death penalty’s ridiculously high costs. Despite only executing two people in the modern era, individuals are still sentenced to die in exorbitantly expensive capital trials, followed by an automatic, complex appeals process, and then offenders are placed in costlier housing — death row in Salem.

Every step of the death penalty process is more expensive than life in prison without parole, and a recently released study uncovered just how wasteful capital punishment is. The Oregon Justice Resource Center commissioned two academics from the region to investigate the expenses associated with the death penalty, and they concluded that each capital case can cost anywhere from $800,000 to more than $1 million beyond the cost of life without parole.

Despite these expenses, taxpayers do not enjoy any real benefits from the death penalty. After reviewing deterrence studies, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that there isn’t any compelling evidence suggesting that capital punishment impacts murder rates. Moreover, the death penalty’s onerous and complex process means that the loved ones of murder victims endure years of uncertainty and suffering as they painfully observe prolonged trials, retrials, numerous appeals and constant media attention.

States that conduct executions also bear an unacceptable probability of executing an innocent person. Over 155 people have been wrongly convicted and sentenced to die across the nation, and others have been put to death even though their verdicts were seriously in doubt. While the current administration in Oregon is unlikely to resume executions, that doesn’t mean that Gov. Kate Brown’s eventual successor won’t restart them, which will inevitably imperil the wrongly convicted.

One only has to look to one of the 35 individuals on Oregon’s death row — Jesse Lee Johnson. He was sentenced to die in 2003, but recent investigations have cast significant doubt on his guilt. This includes DNA and other evidence that have been gathered. Hopefully, Johnson will receive a fair hearing regarding his innocence claims, but there’s no telling how many others on Oregon’s death row may be innocent. So long as the 35 remain there and another gubernatorial administration can resume executions, Oregon runs the chance of a wrongful execution.

The death penalty across the United States is plagued with irreparable flaws, and Oregon’s capital punishment system is no different. However, there is a straightforward remedy for Oregon — granting clemency to those on death row. This will save the taxpayers from continuing to fund a wasteful program and limit the chance of a wrongful execution. This is well within the governor’s power. She can commute all death sentences but still keep those convicted of murder incarcerated in order to protect society. This will relieve the taxpayers’ burden of bankrolling the high costs associated with the current death row inmates and mitigate the chance of executing the innocent.

— Marc Hyden is the national advocacy coordinator for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.

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