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Former Gov. John Kitzhaber: Oregon's Death Penalty Needs Scrutiny

Former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017.

Former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

John Kitzhaber has a unique place in Oregon’s history with the death penalty: He’s the only Oregon governor since the early 1960s to oversee executions. In 1996, during his first term, Kitzhaber allowed Douglas Wright to be executed by lethal injection. The next year, he allowed the same for Harry Moore. Both men had dropped their appeals.

As part of our series of conversations about the death penalty, “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller talked with Kitzhaber about this experience and how it led him to impose a moratorium on capital punishment in Oregon in 2011.

When he first ran for governor in 1994, Kitzhaber said he didn’t think it would come up: “There might have been a question or two, but (the death penalty) just wasn’t a central issue.” 

Then he was confronted by Wright’s and Moore’s cases.

Kitzhaber said before an execution, governors are given all of the court files on the condemned inmate. “There was nothing to suggest these people were innocent,” he said. “They’d committed really, terrible, terrible crimes, no question about it.”

Kitzhaber said he was troubled by the idea of the state ending a life, and that his ethics as a former emergency room doctor certainly played into the equation.

“It was undoubtedly the most difficult decision I ever had to make in public office,” Kitzhaber said. “I was torn between my own personal convictions about the morality of the death penalty and my oath to uphold the constitution.”

Kitzhaber described the two special phone lines that were installed in his office — one to the attorney general and the other into the execution chamber. Kitzhaber said the last communication before Wright died was a call at 11:55 p.m. from the head of the Department of Corrections, who told him that the execution would proceed.

“And at that moment, you’re the only person on the planet who can stop the execution. And then there’s a long 10–15 minutes, and then you get a call that says he was pronounced dead,” Kitzhaber said. “And it was extraordinarily difficult and very personal.”

Kitzhaber emphasized more than once during the 23-minute interview that he did not think — neither then nor now — that the inmates on death row “were good people.”

In fact, he said he “didn’t have any compassion” for Wright or Moore.

“My compassion is certainly with their victims, but their crimes were no different than 30 some other people on death row. The only difference is that they volunteered to die,” Kitzhaber said.

Kitzhaber ran for a third term in 2010 — unprecedented in the state — and won. 

“I never thought I’d be governor again and be put in that position again. But I think the system, even if you support the death penalty, I don’t think people intended it to allow the individual inmate to decide if and when the execution will take place,” he said.

When two-time convicted murderer Gary Haugen’s death warrant was signed in 2011, it forced Kitzhaber to confront the death penalty head-on. He said he chose to impose a moratorium on capital punishment, and he would do it again — though if he had the opportunity, he might consider commutation as well. Kitzhaber said it was because of his experience of feeling like the executioner for Wright and Moore that he could not preside over an execution again. 

“The death penalty is sort of the summit, the pinnacle of just an unjust justice system. We know the relationship between poverty, between domestic violence, between substance abuse, and child neglect and people who end up in the criminal justice system, ” he said. “And we spend millions and millions of dollars on this question of whether to execute someone or not, and we ignore the investments that could actually keep people out of the system in the first place.”

Kitzhaber said he called the families of Haugen’s victims, calls that were not particularly well received. But he said he felt he “owed it to them to explain my decision.”  

He said he tried to explain his conviction that he couldn’t “serve as an executioner anymore.” And he said the larger point is that Oregon’s system of capital punishment is not operating as it was designed to operate.

“I personally think it ought to be repealed and replaced with life without parole,” Kitzhaber said. “What I was hoping was to jump start the conversation, because even if I had commuted the row, the death penalty would still be in place. And the real issue is not the commutation. It’s having another discussion about the death penalty.”

That’s something that Kitzhaber did not see in his third term or the first month of his fourth term, which ended abruptly with his resignation in 2015. But he said he’s encouraged by Gov. Kate Brown’s choice to continue the moratorium, and he’s hopeful that wider public dialogue may still be sparked.

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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