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Former OSP Superintendent Says Execution As State Policy Isn't Justified

Former superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary Frank Thompson oversaw two executions in the late 1990s.

Former superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary Frank Thompson oversaw two executions in the late 1990s.

Allison Frost/OPB

Frank Thompson is a man who has seen his share of conflict.

He served in the military, as a law enforcement officer, and — from 1994 to 1998 — as superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary. In that role, he oversaw the only two state executions in more than 50 years. It was that experience, he said, that sparked in him a change of heart.

Thompson spoke to “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller as part of our series of conversations about capital punishment in Oregon.

When he was first hired, Thompson said, it was an expectation that he would carry out a death sentence if called on.

“In fact, the statute at that time, specifically stated that the superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary ‘shall’ — so it was not an option, it was an integral part of the qualifications of the position,” Thompson said. “They didn’t ask me, was I willing; they asked me, was I capable.”

At the time, Thompson was generally in favor of the death penalty. Long before he came to Oregon, he’d lost a friend in law enforcement to homicide. When the murderer was executed some years later, he felt that justice had been served.

“Elated? Joyful? Happy? No. But I was satisfied, in that sense. It was very personal,” he said. “I was really operating out of a victim’s standpoint.”

Still, Thompson said that until he became an executioner himself, he hadn’t really thought about the death penalty in much depth. That changed when Thompson read the death warrant of Douglas Wright, who dropped his appeals in the mid-90s. The state hadn’t executed anyone since 1962, when executions were performed by lethal gas. The law later called for lethal injection, and it was up to Thompson to come up with the new protocol.

“It was a profound level of responsibility,” he said.

Thompson decided to travel to California. He wanted to witness an execution and observe their protocols and procedures. During that trip, he became greatly concerned with the impact carrying out an execution would have on his staff. Correctional officers already have very high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“If there was going to be a victim, I wanted it to be the condemned, not my staff,” Thompson said.

In addition to coming up with the protocols for the executions, Thompson was also being trained to administer the lethal drugs — so that he could train the executioner.

“And it was these experiences that started in me the feeling that this was not good to be involved in, a public policy that took human life in the name of a public policy that could not be shown to work,” he said.

Dave Miller asked Thompson if he remembered the moment in which his stance on the death penalty really changed.

“It was very quick,” Thompson said. “I remember sitting in front of one of the inmates involved and informing that inmate that it was my job to carry out this execution, and I could feel within my core that I was about a business that just wasn’t sitting right.” 

Now, Thompson said he’s glad Oregon has continued the moratorium on the death penalty. He feels that’s more important than simply commuting the sentences of death row inmates.

“I support the moratoriums because they put that issue in the center of the table,” he said. “It helps to raise the dialogue and raise conversations and helps to educate people more widely.

“And if we’re going to have a successful repeal of the death penalty, I think it’s all about educating and raising awareness, as compared to commutations. I’m not in favor of people who are guilty of heinous crimes escaping being held accountable. And that will not further the efforts to get rid of the death penalty. Commutation is moving them from death row possibly to life without the possibility of parole. But you still have the death penalty on the books. And I’m about getting the death penalty off the books.”

Timeline: The Death Penalty In Oregon

As part of the “Think Out Loud” series on the death penalty, Bill Long, author of “A Tortured History: The Story of Capital Punishment in Oregon,” tells us about Oregon’s back-and-forth relationship with the death penalty.

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