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Q&A: Showdown Over Death Row Inmate

The showdown between Oregon death row inmate Gary Haugen and Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber made it to the state’s highest court Thursday. Kitzhaber issued Haugen a reprieve shortly before the two-time murderer was scheduled to die by lethal injection in 2011. But Haugen says he wants to die, and is trying to reject the reprieve. The Oregon Supreme Court heard arguments from both sides during a hearing held in front of law students at the University of Oregon Law School in Eugene. Reporter Chris Lehman joins us now from Eugene.

BH: Hi,Chris.

CL: Hi, Beth.

BH: This is kind of an unusual situation. Usually, we hear about inmates on death row trying to to avoid execution. Can you remind us of why Haugen is doing the opposite?

CL: You have to remember that Gary Haugen has spent virtually his entire adult life behind bars. He landed on death row after the brutal murder of a fellow inmate a decade ago. So at age 50, he’s told the court repeatedly that he wants to die. He had dropped all of his appeals and was on track to become the first inmate put to death in Oregon since 1997. But all that took a dramatic turn in late 2011 when Governor Kitzhaber put a moratorium on the death penalty, and specifically issuing a reprieve to Haugen, who was the only one with a pending execution. Then THAT took a dramatic turn when Haugen said he rejected the governor’s reprieve, and a lower court agreed  that Haugen had the right to reject it, and that the state SHOULD execute Haugen. So that’s how things ended up in front of the Oregon Supreme Court today.

BH: What were the basic arguments made today by attorneys for Haugen and Kitzhaber?

CL: Let’s start with Anna Joyce,  the Soliciter General for the state. She argued on behalf of Kitzhaber that the governor is given absolute power by both the Oregon Constitution and hundreds of years of legal precedence to grant clemency, pardons, and reprieves. She said it would be crazy to allow a death row inmate to have greater power than the governor of the state of Oregon.

Anna Joyce: There has been going back to English times the sort of idea that death penalty cases are different, and that an individual doesn’t have the power to force the government to execute him if that isn’t what the government wants to do.

But Haugen’s attorney, Harrison Latto, cited numerous cases of inmates, even here in Oregon, that have successfully rejected offers of reprieve or clemency. That prompted Justice Virginia Linder to ask Latto this question:

Virginia Linder: “Is there case in American jurisprudence or maybe even English jurisprudence in which a governor purported to reprieve somebody from a death sentence—that’s all the governor was doing, no condition, no express condition added to it—and the court ordered the prisoner executed?”

Harrison Latto: “I haven’t found a case like that your honor, and obviously it’s an unusual situation so I wouldn’t expect to find a case like that.”

And Beth, that really underscores how unique this situation is: A death row inmate challenging one of the long-accepted powers of a governor.

BH: What’s next? When can we expect a ruling in this case?

CL: Generally after oral arguments it’s several months before the Court issues a decision. Obviously this is a high-profile case so you can expect all eyes will be on the court to see how they rule.

BH: Reporter Chris Lehman joined us from Eugene

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