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.
There is a way out. Recognizing that Oregon has better things to do than descend back into the nasty business of executions, Governor John Kitzhaber can lead the way by commuting Haugen’s death sentence. More than that, he can cite this ugly episode as a reason his state should abandon capital punishment once and for all.