Clatsop County district attorney Josh Marquis has a quarter century of experience in capital cases in Oregon. And he has experience being both the lead prosecutor and the lead defense lawyer in death penalty cases. In fact, as he recently told “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller as part of our series of interviews exploring perspectives on the death penalty, he was fervently anti-capital punishment for the first part of his life.
“When Oregon voted in 1964 to abolish the death penalty, I may have only been 12 years old, or 11, but I was very interested politically,” Marquis says. “My father was a political science professor. I remember putting the bumper sticker on the back of his Ford Falcon that said ‘Abolish the Death Penalty.’”
“Think Out Loud” conversations about capital punishment in Oregon
Marquis said he continued to hold that belief all the way up until he had been a prosecutor for a couple years in Lane county.
“There are, unfortunately, a very few irredeemable people. People who are, to use a word, evil. Not in the religious sense, but people who are in the psychiatric sense chronic, antisocial, sociopathic personalities. They either don’t care about hurting other people or they even get joy and pleasure from it.”
But what really changed his mind, says Marquis, was being a private practice lawyer for a time. Being the lead defense attorney in two death penalty cases changed him, he says.
“One was a man who indubitably murdered his wife and her teenage son, in Eugene, and another was a man who had killed a woman for money essentially and then sexually abused her body after her death. They were horrible cases, there was never any questions about their guilt. I did what my job was, which was to zealously defend them. I wore the DAs office down. In the first case, I ended up getting a single regular murder count, with a 10 year sentence. Way far down from life [in prison] or death.”
But he didn’t feel good about it.
“I mean, I felt good that I did my job for my client, but that’s not why I became a lawyer … But what I discovered was that I was no longer proud of what I did for a living.”
Marquis says he went back into prosecuting in criminal law, and over time, the position he’s come to is that the death penalty should be reserved for only a small subset of murderers, but that it is a vital part of the justice system.
“There are people that are beyond redemption,” he says. “That’s what the death penalty process, in Oregon particularly, attempts to ask a jury to do. To ask them in the penalty phase, once they’ve decided that someone is in fact guilty of the crime: Is this person redeemable at all? And if the answer is that they’re subject to redemption: no death penalty.”
That’s why, Marquis says, he’s stood before juries and asked for the ultimate punishment just four times in 25 years. “When I stand in front of a jury, I assume that I am essentially pulling the trigger. So, that is an incredible moral responsibility.”
Marquis says that although public opinion has fluctuated over time, there’s a class difference in how people feel about the death penalty.
“One of the reasons that the elites of our society, which would include my parents and the kind of upbringing I had, are generally opposed to the death penalty, is that the kind of horrific crime and violence that usually gives rise to death sentences, is almost invariably doesn’t touch the upper middle class in our society, or the upper classes.”
Marquis says that even though governor Kate Brown has the power of commutation (and could theoretically commute sentences for the more than 30 people on death row), he doesn’t think she’s likely to use that power much.
“I think if the governor really believed it, she probably would commute, and I think there would be a political back swell that would probably run her out of office in two years.”
Ultimately, Marquis says, governors should respect the will of the people, and the current law of the state, which right now, retains the death penalty as an sentencing option for people convicted of certain kinds of murders.