NEW VOICES: Former Texas Governor Supports Actions by Oregon's Governor

In a recent op-ed in Oregon's Statesman Journal, former Texas Governor Mark White (pictured) applauded Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber’s decision to grant a reprieve to death row inmate Gary Haugen and to halt all executions in the state.  Governor White wrote, “I think Kitzhaber's decision is respectable and courageous. In Oregon, as in Texas, it is clearly within the constitutional authority of the governor to grant reprieves and commutations. With that authority comes the responsibility to ensure the state's laws are carried out fairly and within the state and federal constitutions. He concluded that Oregon's death penalty as a system was not passing that test.”  Governor White also said that Governor Kitzhaber’s decision now allows time for the state to study the death penalty and address serious concerns about the system.  Governor White concluded, “Such a decision should be welcomed by all who value justice, regardless of their personal beliefs about the death penalty.” Read full op-ed below.

Criminal justice system is fallible
Mark White

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber recently granted a reprieve to Gary Haugen, scheduled to be executed last week for the brutal murder of a fellow prison inmate, having already been sentenced for killing Mary Archer, the mother of his former girlfriend.

While Haugen "volunteered" to be executed and waived any remaining appeals, Kitzhaber decided not to let the execution proceed based on the fact that Oregon's death penalty system is, in his words, "compromised and inequitable" and "fails to meet basic standards of justice."

I can assure you no decision a governor makes is more gut-wrenching than one to proceed with an execution.

I know firsthand the weight of the deliberations involved: As governor of Texas in the 1980s, I oversaw 19 executions. For each convicted murderer, I painstakingly reviewed the evidence against him before allowing the execution to proceed and, in each case, believed the execution was just.

Unlike Kitzhaber, I do not regard the death penalty as morally objectionable. I continue to believe some crimes are so heinous, some actions so abhorrent, that society is morally justified in demanding the perpetrator's life be forfeited.

Yet I think Kitzhaber's decision is respectable and courageous. In Oregon, as in Texas, it is clearly within the constitutional authority of the governor to grant reprieves and commutations. With that authority comes the responsibility to ensure the state's laws are carried out fairly and within the state and federal constitutions. He concluded that Oregon's death penalty as a system was not passing that test.

Kitzhaber's observation that the system is unjust is hardly revolutionary. As a nation, we've increasingly been confronted with incontrovertible evidence of the unfairness and inaccuracy of our capital punishment systems. Scores of people have been released from death row after evidence of their innocence emerged, including at least a dozen from my home state.

Particularly with the introduction of DNA testing, it has become increasingly clear that our criminal justice system is fallible, subject to human error even when prosecutors, judges, defense counsel and jurors all operate in good faith. Most disturbing, strong evidence exists that innocent individuals have actually been put to death.

We have learned unexpected and disturbing lessons about what causes the many inaccuracies in the system — well-intentioned eyewitnesses are often mistaken; much of the science used in courts is junk; and innocent individuals sometimes confess to crimes they did not commit.

We know that whether one receives the death penalty depends on the quality of one's defense counsel; and the quality of one's defense counsel depends on how much money one has. We have also realized that death sentences are arbitrary; factors that have nothing to do with the seriousness of the crime or culpability of the defendant — like geography, funding and race — determine who is allowed to live and who is sentenced to die.

Kitzhaber made clear that his actions were not motivated by sympathy for Haugen, but rather by systemic concerns with Oregon's death penalty — concerns that are well-founded in the face of recent evidence. His decision has given the Legislature and the people of Oregon the time to study the death penalty, make necessary changes or, if they choose, to dispense with it altogether.
Such a decision should be welcomed by all who value justice, regardless of their personal beliefs about the death penalty.

--Mark White served as Texas governor from 1983-87 and as state attorney general from 1979-83. He co-chairs The Constitution Project's Death Penalty Committee, which promotes improvements in the death penalty system. He can be reached at [email protected]

(M. White, "Criminal justice system is fallible," Statesman Journal, December 11, 2011).  See New Voices and Clemency.  See DPIC's post on Gov. Kitzhaber's action.