Mixed reactions to Oregon governor commuting death row

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s decision to commute all of the state’s 17 death sentences and dismantle the state’s execution chamber has some, including a former prison superintendent-turned-abolitionist, lauding the move as the humane choice.

Others, including a small city mayor whose town was left scarred by a fatal bank bombing, see the change as a derailment of justice.

While Oregon has long wrestled with its position on capital punishment — voters have alternately abolished and reinstated it several times over the past century — in recent years the state’s Department of Corrections has been phasing out death row and the Legislature has passed a law narrowing the circumstances in which the death sentence can be imposed. Brown signed Senate Bill 1013 in 2019.

Brown’s order, which took effect on Wednesday and changes the 17 inmates’ death sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole, cites that state law along with “the declining support for the death penalty in Oregon” as part of the impetus behind her decision.

The former superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary, Frank Thompson, who oversaw the state’s two most recent executions in 1996 and 1997, has pushed for repealing the death penalty since leaving the position. He testified in favor of SB 1013 and welcomed Brown’s announcement.

In a phone interview with The Associated Press, Thompson described shouldering the “huge responsibility” of overhauling the state’s capital punishment methods. When he began working as superintendent in 1994, Oregon was still conducting its executions by lethal gas.

“The protocols had not been updated to promote executing anyone by lethal injection,” Thompson told AP. “I don’t know that I can put into words how daunting and how tremendous that responsibility weighed on me.”

Thompson said that supervising executions, and training staff to conduct them, took an emotional toll that changed his stance on the death penalty.

“There have been restless nights. There have been dreams. There has been counseling of others that were a part of the process who were having difficulties,” he said. “But my involvement in the abolition movement for getting rid of the death penalty has been very redeeming for me.”

Advocates for crime victims have been more critical of Brown’s decision, saying it denies justice for people whose lives have been affected by violent criminals.

The mayor of Woodburn, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of Portland, called Brown’s order a “betrayal.” This week, the city is marking the 14th anniversary of a bank bombing that killed its police captain and an Oregon state trooper and injured its police chief, who lost a leg in the explosion, along with a bank employee. A jury in December 2010 convicted Bruce Turnidge and his son Joshua Turnidge of murder over the bombing, unanimously finding them guilty of all 18 counts against them and placing them on death row.

“I was shocked and angered to learn that Governor Brown unilaterally commuted the death sentences of the two murderers who committed these terrible crimes against our police officers and our community without consultations of apparent consideration of victims,” said the mayor, Frank Lonergan, in a statement. He said the order supersedes the legal process by undercutting the jury’s conviction.

Death sentences were also commuted for Christian Longo, who was sentenced to death in 2003 for killing his wife and their three children, and Jesse Compton, who was convicted of killing a 3-year-old girl in 1997.

In Oregon, Brown is known for exercising her authority to grant clemency.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Brown granted clemency to nearly 1,000 people convicted of crimes. Two district attorneys, along with family members of crime victims, sued the governor and other state officials to stop the clemency actions. But the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled in August that she acted within her authority.

Since 1914, Oregon voters have abolished and reinstated the death penalty several times. They most recently reinstated it in 1984, despite the Oregon Supreme Court declaring it unconstitutional three years prior. There have been two executions by lethal injection, in 1996 and 1997, since it was reinstated.

Some criminal justice reform groups are pushing to repeal the state’s death penalty once again. Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty is working on a ballot measure that would ask voters to abolish it, board chair Tom O’Connor said in a statement.

So far, 18 people have been executed in the U.S. in 2022, all by lethal injection, in Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, Missouri, Alabama and Mississippi, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

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Claire Rush is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Claire on Twitter.

Copyright © 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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