Monday, June 11, 2018

Steve Duin: Josh Marquis, unleashed

By Steve Duin
For The Oregonian/OregonLive
Updated Jun 8; posted June 8


Photo: Steve Duin
Since Oregon voters enthusiastically restored the death penalty in 1984, no one has brought more urgency and clarity to the debate over capital crime and punishment than Josh Marquis, Clatsop County's district attorney.

Few appreciate that advocacy more than Doug Houser.

In 1987, Rod Houser - Doug's brother - and his wife, Lois, were murdered at their Terrebonne home by Randy Guzek, Mark Wilson and Donald Ross Cathey. Guzek, a dark, vicious soul, was sentenced to death, Wilson and Cathey to life sentences with a slim possibility of parole.

Over the last 30 years, the Oregon Supreme Court has three timesoverturned Guzek's sentence on procedural grounds. Each time Marquis took charge of the prosecution and convinced another jury that Guzek deserves Death Row.
Fan mail from the late Justice Antonin  Scalia. Photo: Steve Duin
"He kept his promises," says Houser, 83, a Portland attorney. "Even when he left Deschutes County and became district attorney in Clatsop County, he said that if necessary he would use family vacation time to retry the murder case of the guy who killed my brother and sister-in-law.

"He always found a way to come back and, at great personal sacrifice, fulfill his promise to our family. I admire Josh greatly. He was constant and steady and loyal to Oregon taxpayers and to our family."

Marquis retires at year's end. In early 1994, then-Gov. Barbara Roberts sent him to the Oregon coast, asking him to salvage an office that his predecessor, Julie Ann Leonhardt, disgraced en route to indictment and recall.

He'd never set foot in Astoria before the fall of '93, but he landed well, successfully winning election to the DA's office in 1994. Marquis was never challenged in his five subsequent re-election campaigns.

He was, however, quoted. Interminably. Often by me.

"Lawyers are trained to deliberately obfuscate," Marquis says. That's not his style. He understands how media operates, having worked for the Daily Emerald at the University of Oregon. He knows the case is best served when he patiently, exhaustively frames it.

"He talks, and he explains things," says Steve Forrester, the retired publisher of The Daily Astorian and chief exec of the EO Media Group. "Our papers in eastern Oregon have had DAs that are the reverse, and it's not fun for them."

"I like to think reporters call me because I'm an easy date," Marquis says. "I'll talk on the record. I'll give them a definite viewpoint."

Yes,but an uncluttered mind. Photo: Steve Duin
On the evolving reaction to the victims' rights movement and the lack of prosecutors on Oregon's high courts. On Lars. On local drunken driving cases. On his dogged affection for the nearest stray cat.

"He's a political gadfly and a gossip," says state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose. "He's an idiot savant who can remember how a precinct in Portland voted during the Eisenhower administration. I refer to him publicly as the DA from hell."

If you know Johnson, you recognize this as high praise. "You can have spirited disagreements with him," Johnson adds, "and it never gets personal."

Marquis takes many things personally, especially animal rights and his national prominence in the death-penalty debate. "I'm probably the most quoted DA in the United States on the subject of capital punishment," he notes.

But the Guzek case aside, he admits to increased ambivalence on the subject as "the absolute certitude that often comes with youth and inexperience" ages on the vine.

"If you're involved in this business and you're not ambivalent about it," Marquis says, "something is wrong." He credits Richard Dieter at the Death Penalty Information Center for reformulating the arguments against capital punishment, focusing on racial disparities and the quality of legal representation rather questions of morality.

"My plaintive cry has always been, 'Let's be honest.' If you think it's morally wrong for a state to kill, I'm never going to convince you otherwise. My morality doesn't trump your morality."

And if you believe families like the Housers deserve your trust, you battle to the end, without compromise or disdain.

"In debating the death penalty around the world, I've always been struck by the high level of civility," Marquis says. "What scares the hell out of me, as the son of a political-science professor who lived through the Nixon era, is that I've never seen anything as toxic as the way Washington is now.

"I'm frightened by the absence of civility. I admire passion. I try not to let that get in the way of civility."

In the months to come, Ron Brown, Marquis's deputy and the prosecutor in Guzek's original aggravated murder trial, will take command of the Clatsop DA's office.

Marquis will exit gracefully, but not quietly, especially if Oregon's governor moves to commute the sentences of those on Death Row. He wonders if his opinion will matter as much when he retires, and he shouldn't.

The man speaks his mind. He revels in spirited disagreements. He keeps his promises. The impassioned discourse on the nature of justice in Oregon wouldn't be the same without him.

-- Steve Duin

stephen.b.duin@gmail.com

Read the Opinion piece on the Oregonian website.

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