Where They Stand: Oregon's Gubernatorial Candidates On Death Penalty, Capital Punishment

By Conrad Wilson (OPB)
Portland, Oregon Oct. 12, 2018 9:11 p.m.

During an emotional press conference in 2011, then-Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber told a room full of reporters that the state's death penalty is a "perversion of justice."


Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on executions, thrusting those responsible for the most heinous crimes — and their victims — into a state of limbo.

Gov. Kate Brown has continued Kitzhaber's legacy since taking office in 2015. If she's re-elected for four more years, she said, the moratorium would continue to stay in place.

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But if voters elect her GOP rival Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, the orthopedic surgeon said he would let executions go forward.

Related: Washington Supreme Court Tosses Out State's Death Penalty

Currently, there are 33 people on death row: 32 men and one woman. The last execution in Oregon was in May 1997. The state carries out capital punishment via lethal injection.

Nationally, there's a trend to do away with the death penalty. Since 2007, six states have ended capital punishment – though it was reinstated by Nebraska voters in 2016. This month, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled the state's death penalty is unconstitutional because "it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner."

In Oregon, voters and the courts have had a turbulent relationship with capital punishment. Its practice was outlawed by voters in 1964, re-enacted in 1978, then three years later ruled unconstitutional. In 1984, Oregon voters reinstated the death penalty.

In 2017, Kitzhaber told OPB's "Think Out Loud" that part of his reason for opposing the death penalty was because of his career as an emergency room doctor.

“Unquestionably, that was a big part of the conflict that I had,” he said. “A moral conflict, I had a conflict that had to do with my profession and the ethics involved with the practice of medicine.”

Kate Brown (Democrat)

During her nearly four years in office, Brown has maintained the moratorium on the death penalty. That moratorium was put in place by Kitzhaber just before the scheduled execution of inmate Gary Haugen.

During a debate this month moderated by The Oregonian/OregonLive and KGW, Brown reaffirmed her support for the moratorium.

“There’s currently no pending executions and so we have continued the moratorium and under my watch, no one will be executed,” Brown said. “Moving forward I plan to continue the moratorium.”

Knute Buehler (Republican)

Like Kitzhaber, Buehler is a doctor, but unlike the state's former governor, he supports the death penalty.

During the same debate with Brown, Buehler said he would do away with the moratorium.

“I will follow the desires of the people of Oregon who voted on this issue and I will enforce the death penalty,” Buehler said. “Of course, as governor, I will look at case-by-case. If I think there is injustice, then I would commute a sentence. But I will follow the wishes of the people of Oregon. They have been very clear on this issue.”

Patrick Starnes (Independent)


Independent Party candidate Patrick Starnes said he doesn’t personally support the death penalty but disagrees with the state’s current moratorium.

"If you look at Oregon history, this issue has been voted for and against a variety of times," Starnes said on OPB's "Think Out Loud" this month. "We need to get that back to the voters to change capital punishment."

Starnes said if nothing changes, he would allow executions to move forward.

“I would have to follow the law,” he said. “So, that would, unfortunately, be the case and I think that would engage the voters to change that law like it did in the past.”

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