NEW VOICES: Former Oregon Chief Justice Recommends Repeal of Death Penalty
Edwin J. Peterson, who served as the Chief Justice of Oregon's Supreme Court for many years, recently recommended ending the state's death penalty. Judge Peterson voted as a citizen to reinstate the death penalty in Oregon in 1978 and in 1984, but he now believes the capital punishment system is broken: "We have an inefficient, ineffective, dysfunctional system," he said. "There is widespread dissatisfaction.... Our system has failed. Recognize it and repeal Oregon’s death penalty." He noted that taxpayers are supporting a system that yields no results: "There is little reason to believe that any defendant now on Oregon’s Death Row will ever be executed. [Yet] we taxpayers pay nearly all of the expenses of prosecuting and defending death-penalty cases." Read the full op-ed below.
Oregon's death penalty is unjust, this former chief justice says
By Edwin J Peterson
In 1978 and 1984, along with most Oregon voters, I voted for and supported the death penalty initiative that reinstated the death penalty in Oregon. Today I don’t. Oregon’s death penalty system is dysfunctional, expensive, unworkable and unfair. Even supporters of the death penalty - I was one – should vote to end the Dickensonian system we have in Oregon.
Dysfunctional. I was appointed to the Supreme Court of Oregon in 1979. In that same year John Wayne Quinn was sentenced to death in an Oregon trial court. In 1981, on Quinn’s appeal, the Oregon Supreme Court held that the 1978 law was unconstitutional. Quinn’s conviction was reversed. On remand he was sentenced to life in prison.
The Quinn decision required an amendment to Oregon’s death penalty law, which, as a citizen, I again voted for in 1984.
Since the restoration of the Oregon death penalty in 1978, 65 persons have been sentenced to death. Some of the convictions have been reversed. Since 1978, not one of those 65 persons has been involuntarily executed. (Two ‘volunteers’ gave up their appeals and were executed.) Today there are 37 persons on Death Row. Those on Death Row, on average, have been there for over 15 years. None of the appeal rights of the 37 persons on Death Row have been exhausted. None! And it will be years before their appeals are exhausted.
Unworkable. Procedurally, the Oregon death penalty system is unworkable. The rules are continually changing. Randy Guzek’s case is one example. In 1988, Guzek was convicted of murdering a couple in Terrebonne, Oregon. He was sentenced to death. Since 1988, Guzek has had four appeals to the Supreme Court of Oregon, three reversals of his death penalty sentences, and four sentences to die. Today, 25 years from the date of his first conviction in 1988, Guzek’s fourth appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court is pending. He has been on Death Row for 24 years. He is still on Step One of his nine possible appeals, nowhere close to the end of his possible appeals.
Expensive. Guzek’s case alone had cost the taxpayers of Oregon $2.2 million by 2009. It has been estimated that the appeal process takes from 25 to 50 years, at a total cost per case of $10 million. Changes of the death penalty law by court decisions and legislative acts have led to more appeals.
Some might argue that our death penalty system is a fair employment bill for death penalty lawyers. The average cost of defending a death penalty case is $438,651.
Under current law, an Oregon defendant sentenced to death has no fewer than nine separate appeals. The reversal rate is high. Not one of the 37 persons on Death Row has yet exhausted his appeal rights! There is little reason to believe that any defendant now on Oregon’s Death Row will ever be executed. We taxpayers pay nearly all of the expenses of prosecuting and defending death-penalty cases. A New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission concluded that the state would save $1.3 million per prisoner in incarceration costs if the death penalty were abolished and a life-without-possibility-of-parole system implemented. Might not the money be better spent on better things?
Unfair. The same crime may be treated differently based on the county in which the crime takes place. One district attorney, heralded as being “tough on crime,” may pursue a death penalty, while another believes that life in prison without parole provides adequate punishment and safety to the citizens. With death on the table, fairness must be achieved. Under our system, fairness is difficult to achieve.
Mistakes are made. The system sets up the possibility of a fatal mistake--killing an innocent person. Nationally, there have been 142 exonerations of people awaiting execution, persons found innocent of the crimes of which they were convicted. The majority of Oregon death penalty convictions have been reversed. Does this provide confidence in the system?
We have an inefficient, ineffective, dysfunctional system. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the system. Eighteen states have repealed their death penalty laws (Maryland most recently, in 2013).
Let’s admit it. Our system has failed. Recognize it and repeal Oregon’s death penalty.
Edwin J. Peterson served on the Supreme Court of Oregon from 1979 to 1994, and was Chief Justice from 1983 to 1991.
(E. Peterson, "Oregon's death penalty is unjust, this former chief justice says," Oregonian, op-ed, October 23, 2013). Read other New Voices.