The Albany Democrat-Herald in Oregon recently editorialized that the “death penalty isn’t working,” and concluded “that the death penalty here is a pointless law. If we’re not going to apply this law, then getting rid of it would be the less expensive course.” The editorial cited the possibility of error, the arbitrariness of applying the punishment to some dangerous offenders but not others, and the difficulty of ever getting to an execution as reasons for ending capital punishment. The editorial follows:

Death penalty isn’t working

A group based in Portland wants to abolish the death penalty in Oregon. Maybe they would get more public attention if we had the death penalty in fact as well as in law, and if there was an execution now and then.

Oregon voters reinstated the death penalty twice in the last generation. The 2nd time, in 1984, we did it right, and the courts did not strike down the law.

Instead, the courts did something else. They strung out the appeals so that in the 22 years since the voters acted, not a single person condemned to death has been executed if he didn’t want to be.

The only 2 executions that did take place involved convicts who refused to appeal their sentences beyond the mandatory reviews by the state Supreme Court. They evidently realized they were better off dead than spending the rest of their lives in prison.

More than 30 men are on “death row” at the Oregon State Penitentiary. One of them has been there since 1991. No executions are foreseen in the next 5 years.

It’s not as though we don’t have worthy candidates for capital punishment. Most (though not all) of the condemned men have been convicted not just of aggravated murder but other crimes as well, ranging from assault and burglary to kidnapping and rape.

But while these men deserve to die before their time, there are uncounted others in the prison system who deserve the same fate but are not getting it. Ward Weaver is just one example. He killed 2 girls in Oregon City in 2002. But then he avoided any death sentence by pleading guilty to murder. Now we’re taking care of him in prison, and will do so the rest of his natural life.

Besides the lack of even-handedness, one of the other arguments against the death penalty is that someone may be convicted unjustly, and an execution in that case would irreparably compound a miscarriage of justice. Judging by the Oregon cases on death row, it hasn’t happened here, but the possibility exists.

The way Oregon has been dealing with this statute — by showing no urgency at all in at least trying to expedite decisions on appeals — it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the death penalty here is a pointless law. If we’re not going to apply this law, then getting rid of it would be the less expensive course.

(Albany Democrat-Herald, Dec. 11, 2006). See New Voices and Editorials.