Our Death Penalty: Inciting Murder And Killing Arbitrarily

Rally to abolish the death penaltyWhen Robert Gleason Jr. was put to death in Virginia on January 16 (he chose the electric chair) he became the 140th so-called “volunteer” for execution since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976.  In fact, over 10% of US executions have been “voluntary,” usually meaning that the prisoner has given up his appeals.

But in Gleason’s case it was more than that. He specifically killed to get the death penalty. He strangled his cellmate and vowed to keep on killing unless he was executed.  And this is not the first time someone has committed murder in order to get the state to kill him.  In Ohio in 2009, Christopher Newton was put to death for killing his cellmate. He had refused to cooperate with investigators unless they sought the death penalty.

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Give Thanks For Halting Of Oregon Executions

On Tuesday, November 22, Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon declared a moratorium on all executions in his state.   Among other things, he said:

I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer; and I will not allow further executions while I am governor.” And: “I am convinced we can find a better solution that keeps society safe, supports the victims of crime and their families and reflects Oregon values. “ (It is definitely worth reading the entire statement.)

And, while you’re at it, take a little time to thank this Governor for his unusually heartfelt action.

This is the first governor-imposed moratorium on executions since Governor George Ryan halted executions in Illinois in the year 2000.  There the issue was innocence (13 exonerations at the time compared to 12 executions); here, one of the issues is “volunteers”.  Both Oregon’s post-reinstatement executions have been of men who chose to give up their appeals, and Gary Haugen, scheduled for execution on December 6 was actively pursuing his own death.  Governor Kitzhaber called the execution of those voluntarily seeking to be killed a “perversion of justice.”

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Oregon Execution Is Off

Update 5:30pm:  The Governor of Oregon has said he will block the execution of Gary Haugen, and indeed all executions in his state.

Today the Oregon Supreme Court, by a 4-3 vote (“It is by such razor-thin margins that we determine who lives and who dies”) declined to order a new mental competency hearing for Gary Haugen, who is orchestrating his own execution, now definitively scheduled for December 6.

There is ample evidence that Mr. Haugen suffers from serious mental illness (beyond his “volunteering” to be executed), but he fired the lawyers who were attempting to put that evidence in front of a judge.

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Choosing To Be Executed, Or Choosing To End Executions?

Yesterday in Alabama, Christopher Johnson was executed.  Despite a childhood spent in and out of psychiatric hospitals, he had been allowed to represent himself at trial and then refuse to pursue appeals.  He seemingly wanted to die.

More than one in ten U.S. executions since reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976 has been a “volunteer” like Christopher Johnson.  Another, Gary Haugen, is slated to be put to death in Oregon on December 6.  Oregon, unlike Alabama, rarely executes prisoners; its last two executions (in 1996 and 1997) were also of “volunteers”.  Oregon is one of several states that have executed only “volunteers”.  (Connecticut, Idaho, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota are the others – Nevada has executed 11 “volunteers”, but only one prisoner whose appeals were fully heard.)  At least one study has found a strong correlation between “volunteering” for execution and mental illness.

There is evidence that Gary Haugen is not mentally fit to choose to give up his appeals.  But courts haven’t heard that evidence because, well, he’s given up his appeals.  For a state that has never been enthusiastic about the death penalty, that’s a troubling catch-22.

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Get Well Soon … So We Can Kill You

Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, a former prison psychologist, admits that he recognizes the irony.  His state is keeping Lawrence Reynolds alive, on suicide watch, so they can execute him Tuesday morning.  Reynolds attempted suicide by overdosing on pills on Sunday and was rushed to the hospital where his life was saved.  The Governor postponed his execution, original scheduled for March 9, to give him sufficient time to recover so that the Buckeye state can kill him properly.

“It is ironic, obviously, that you would work to keep someone alive when they are scheduled to be executed,” the Governor said.  “Ironic” may be putting it mildly.  When you adopt a policy (state killing) that directly contradicts basic values (life is precious), absurd and morally dubious practices like this are inevitable.

What is ironic is that, back in May 2007, the state of Ohio executed Christopher Newton, who volunteered” to be put to death by giving up his appeals.  He even refused to cooperate with those investigating the crime he committed unless they promised to seek the death penalty.  The state of Ohio was surely assisting Newton in committing suicide on that day, though they nearly botched it by taking 90 minutes to find a vein to administer his lethal injection.

(Nationally, there have been 135 of these “voluntary” executions, representing over 10 percent of all executions since reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.)

The Governor’s lame excuse for this current predicament is that his government is required to “observe the law as we understand it.”  Of course, the law also allows the Governor to commute death sentences, or even impose a moratorium on all executions in his state, as many, including Amnesty International, are urging him to do.