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Unwanted Reprieve from Execution Upheld by Oregon Supreme Court

As previously reported in PLN, Oregon death row prisoner Gary Haugen filed a legal challenge to Governor John Kitzhaber’s November 2011 decision to impose a moratorium on the state’s death penalty, which had the effect of granting Haugen a temporary reprieve from execution. [See: PLN, June 2013, p.30; Dec. 2012, p.47].

The Oregon Supreme Court held on June 20, 2013 that the reprieve was “valid and effective” irrespective of whether Haugen wanted to accept it. In a 40-page opinion written by Chief Justice Thomas A. Balmer, the Court ruled that a circuit court had erred in finding in favor of Haugen’s unprecedented challenge.

When Governor Kitzhaber halted all executions in the state, he said Oregon’s capital punishment process had “devolved into an unworkable system that fails to meet the basic standards of justice.” Haugen, on death row for the 2007 murder of a fellow prisoner – his second murder conviction – disputed the governor’s authority to grant him a temporary reprieve because he did not want to accept it.

Haugen contended that he should be able to choose whether to pursue further appeals or allow his death sentence to be carried out; he further argued the reprieve was invalid because it lacked an expiration date, which left him in limbo, and thus violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The Oregon Supreme Court rejected those arguments, concluding “that the Governor’s reprieve of Haugen’s death sentence is valid and effective, regardless of Haugen’s acceptance of that reprieve.” See: Haugen v. Kitzhaber, 353 Ore. 715, 306 P.3d 592 (Or. 2013), reconsideration denied.

As a result of the ruling, Governor Kitzhaber’s reprieve will last until he leaves office. His term expires next year, and if elected again he would serve until 2019. Haugen’s attorney, Harrison Latto, a former state assistant attorney general, said if Kitzhaber is not re-elected the next governor could allow the reprieve to lapse.

In a prior term as governor, Kitzhaber had allowed the execution of two prisoners in 1996 and 1997. When elected again in 2010, he said he was haunted by the executions and would not allow any more prisoners to be put to death while he remained in office. Kitzhaber stated he had no sympathy for Haugen, but cited Oregon’s “compromised and inequitable” capital punishment system.

Commutation of a death sentence is permitted under Oregon law, and two previous governors issued blanket commutations to death row prisoners in 1959 and 1964.

For now, Haugen’s execution will continue to be delayed. “It could be a day, could be seven years,” Latto said. “During that indefinite period, they’re saying, ‘sit tight and we’ll tell you at the end of that period whether you’ll be executed or not.’”

Then again, although a delay of unknown duration may be disconcerting, it certainly sounds better than a lethal injection administered sooner rather than later.


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