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on July 31, 2014 at 7:40 AM, updated July 31, 2014 at 7:43 AM
"DA and former prison chief debate Oregon's ultimate punishment."
|Frank Thompson, left, is a former superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary, in Salem; Josh Marquis is the district attorney for Clatsop county. (Karen Jackson (left photo), Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian )|
Frank Thompson and Josh Marquis possess strong personalities and opinions. Both have given decades of their lives to law enforcement, the criminal justice system and the public good.
But they stand on opposite sides of the debate on capital punishment.
Marquis is the district attorney in Clatsop County, a 20-year elected official who begins his sixth term in January. He is an outspoken advocate for the death penalty, and has prosecuted capital cases.
Thompson spent three decades in military service, law enforcement and corrections, serving as superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary during the executions of Douglas Wright (1996) and Harry Moore (1997).
We sent them an eight-point questionnaire that touches on recent developments in American capital punishment, including "botched" executions and a federal court judge's ruling that the sloth of California's death penalty makes it unconstitutional.
These answers were lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
You both have strong stances on the death penalty. What is your position? When did you first arrive at it? And what were your reasons?
Thompson: I am actively involved in getting the death penalty repealed in the state of Oregon. Becoming an activist for repeal was the result of an evolutionary process that came to a head in 1996, when I was called upon to oversee the first of two executions to take place in over 34 years in Oregon. While preparing for the first, I found that in the face of increasing evidence-based outcomes that capital punishment was a failed public policy on many levels and I could no longer support it. My years of supporting executions had been driven, in part, by emotions. I lost a sister to a violent act; a best friend and a cousin, both Arkansas state troopers, were killed in the line of duty; and I lived through the civil rights era, when scores of activists were murdered. As a public administrator, I came to feel that emotions should not be the driving force for establishing sound public policy.
Marquis: I don't feel I have that 'strong' a position on the death penalty. I feel strongly about intellectual honesty and civility in what is understandably an emotional debate. I believe that if we truly value life, there are a very few crimes and criminals that deserve to die for their horrible crimes. That is precisely the thinking behind the concept of the Nuremburg tribunals and my personal hero, Justice Robert Jackson (who also had ambivalence about the death penalty, as I think all thinking people involved should have.
Have you ever held an alternative view of capital punishment? If so, what was your previous position, and what brought you to the belief you hold today?
Thompson: My previous position was one of support for the death penalty. I changed my position, while preparing to conduct the first execution Oregon had scheduled in 34 years, to oppose the death penalty. I realized that I was training decent, dedicated and loyal public servants to take human life in the name of a public policy that could not be shown to serve the welfare of the general public. This concern was compounded by the fact that there were reasonable alternatives, such as that of sentencing murderers to life without the possibility of parole
Marquis: I grew up opposing the death penalty. Both my parents did, and I remember putting the "Abolish the Death Penalty" bumper sticker on my father's Ford in 1964. I came to understand there were truly evil people, beyond redemption, in the mid-1970s after being a reporter and working in the district attorney's office in Eugene.
Oregon is at a standstill on capital punishment. Gov. John Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on the death penalty, and the Oregon Supreme Court has shown little interest in sending condemned prisoners to their deaths. Would it be smarter – economically, morally, or in the interests of justice – for Oregon to simply abandon capital punishment? Why or why not?
Thompson: In my opinion, Oregon should replace the death penalty with a life without parole sentence that requires offenders to work and pay restitution. Life without the possibility of release is a just sentence for individuals convicted of aggravated murder. We could then use the monies we save, which now support capital punishment processes, and redirect those savings to make Oregon a safer place by funding crime prevention, victim services and the investigation of cold cases.
Marquis: Gov. Kitzhaber has never hidden his opposition to the death penalty. But in his first term, he allowed the law the people voted on – in 1977 and again in 1984 – to be carried out. Just because the elites of our state, untouched by crime and violence, have "little interest" doesn't matter. This is a populist state that has decided big questions like this by vote of the people. Now the governor has, in my opinion, violated his oath of office and allows his personal views to take precedence over that of Oregonians. The people have spoken, and it isn't up to Kitzhaber or the Oregon Supreme Court to subsume their will. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected claims of unconstitutionality in either the death penalty or its application.
The last executions carried out in Oregon were in 1996 and 1997. Both condemned prisoners, acknowledging guilt, waived appeals and asked to be executed. The state complied. What good or harm came from these executions?
Thompson: I found no good to have come from the administration of the death penalty in the state of Oregon. There are public servants that have been permanently impacted, in negative and personal ways, as a result of having been a part of those executions. There is no reliable evidence that the executions conducted in Oregon have made any of our communities safer. For the same reasons that U.S. District Judge Comac J. Carney recently ruled California's capital punishment practices as being unconstitutional today, it is my belief that, for similar reasons, Oregon's capital punishment practices and outcomes have been and continue to be indictable, and as such, have produced no general public benefits.
Marquis: Two really bad men were executed for multiple murders (each), and just as any truth in sentencing measure, it shows that a sentence carefully reviewed and fairly handed down actually means what it says. Neither of these men are around to kill any more innocent victims – the concept of specific deterrence. As Cass R. Sunstein, a former Obama cabinet member, put it in a 2005 paper: How can you not have capital punishment if in fact a number of studies post-2000 are right in showing a reduction in murders when capital punishment is used.
A federal judge in California recently vacated a prisoner's death sentence. The judge, citing the sloth of the state's executions, wrote that capital punishment violates the constitutional rights of prisoners not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. For most condemned prisoners, he wrote, "systemic delay has made their execution so unlikely that the death sentence carefully and deliberately imposed by the jury has been transformed into one no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death." Isn't that also true in Oregon? Couldn't a prisoner facing execution in this state make the same argument?
Marquis: Of course they could, but it's a Catch-22 argument: "I'm owed more due process. But if you give it to me, then you're violating my rights by delaying too long." It's frankly an absurd result likely to be overturned – as previous lower level decisions like this have been – by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Thompson: Oregon's death penalty system has never worked. It is as bad as, if not worse than, the system in California. For more than 30 years in Oregon, taxpayers have funded an extremely expensive system that has produced two "voluntary" executions. It is not about to begin working, either. Instead, we are spending millions and millions of dollars for a death penalty system where virtually every case will end with a life sentence – a result we can get much quicker and easier if we simply replace the death penalty with life without possibility of parole.
Thirty-two states (plus the U.S. government and military) have capital punishment statutes. Many condemned prisoners have languished on death row for a decade – more than 20 years, in some cases. Do you believe, under those circumstances, capital punishment deters people from capital crimes on the outside?
Marquis: While low-murder states don't have the death penalty, some low-murder states (like Oregon) do have it. The murder rate is down significantly in the United States, and particularly in places like Harris County, Texas, which imposes the death penalty more than any other county in the nation. [Editors note: Harris County has executed 116 prisoners since 1996.]
Thompson: In 2012, the National Academies National Research Council, the most respected independent research organization in the land, examined three decades of research on whether or not capital punishment is a deterrent to the commission of crime. The council concluded that the research is not useful and discourages the use of any study supporting the use of the death penalty as a deterrent in making public policy. Other than Mr. Marquis, no one believes capital punishment deters. I would like to ask Mr. Marquis: Where in Oregon are the people who decided not to murder for fear of being executed, but who would have carried out the act if they were in some way assured of getting life without parole?
Many Americans seem to believe innocent people have been executed. Has any condemned prisoner in the U.S. been executed for a crime they did not commit?
Marquis: Polls show 70 percent of Americans who support capital punishment also believe innocent men were executed. While it certainly happened in the past, in the modern era of capital punishment (after the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Gregg v. Georgia) there is not a single documented case of a wrongful execution. The literal cover boys – Roger Coleman, on the cover of Time magazine in 1992, and Ricky McGinn, on the cover of Newsweek in 2000 – both claimed to be innocent. Yet in both cases, subsequent DNA tests showed they had both raped and murdered their victims.
Thompson: People who support the death penalty will say there has been no proof of an innocent person having been put to death since executions resumed in the 1970s. This cannot be refuted if you go by their definition of innocence. By that definition, an innocent person would be one whose innocence is accepted and documented in official records of a court, or reflected in a statement of innocence as might be offered by a prosecutor. Since there is no process in the U.S. to recognize post-execution exoneration, the question cannot officially be responded to. However, the Center for Wrongful Convictions has determined that at least 39 executions have been carried out in the United States in face of compelling evidence of innocence or serious doubt about guilt.
Three prisoners from outside Oregon have been executed by lethal injection since January in what news media have referred to as "botched executions." The latest account was a prisoner in Arizona, Joseph Wood, whose execution took two hours. Accounts have differed on what happened. Have these executions been botched? What's going on?
Marquis: The anti-death penalty elites have succeeded in blocking access to the exact same drug used by veterinarians to euthanize dying animals, and, in a most ironic twist, the same drug most commonly used for doctor-assisted suicide in Oregon and Washington: sodium thiopental. Instead, states are forced to come up with other drug combinations such as the exact same one used for anyone who undergoes a colonoscopy. There is no execution that could ever be kind enough, blissful enough, to satisfy those opposed to the death penalty. We are, after all, killing the worst criminals in our society. Does this really mean they deserve an absolutely painless death?
Thompson: Uncertain outcomes in executions are increasing because of waning public support for the administration of the death penalty. The already exorbitant costs and ills of these outcomes make it difficult to find proactive support for the process in any meaningful and productive way. This leaves our public servants in a lurch to make capital punishment work through trial and error, and experimentation (with humans as guinea pigs).
the story at the Oregonian's website:http://www.oregonlive.com/politics/index.ssf/2014/07/death_penalty_qa_da_former_pri.html