Colorado Gov.: Should We As A State Be Taking Lives?

Colorado's Governor granted an indefinite stay for Nathan Dunlap, who was set to be executed in August. In doing so the Gov. questioned the death penalty itself (Photo Credit: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images).

Colorado’s Governor granted an indefinite stay for Nathan Dunlap, who was set to be executed in August. In doing so the Gov. questioned the death penalty itself (Photo Credit: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images).

Governor John W. Hickenlooper of Colorado did something rather extraordinary on Wednesday, when he prevented (by granting an indefinite reprieve) the execution of Nathan Dunlap. Dunlap was scheduled to be put to death during the week of August 18 for a horrible crime, the 1993 murder of four people – three teenagers and a mother of two – in an Aurora, Colorado, Chuck E. Cheese.

Hickenlooper’s reprieve was not based on anything having to do with Dunlap’s case, but was based on problems with the death penalty itself. As Hickenlooper writes:

“It is a legitimate question whether we as a state should be taking lives.”


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.


2011: Five Good Signs For Death Penalty Abolition in the US

stop the execution death penalty protesters

© Scott Langley

Given the dramatic events of the “Arab Spring” and “Occupy Wall Street”, Time Magazine has dubbed “The Protester” as its Person of the Year for 2011. Seems fitting enough, but someday we may also look back on this past year as a turning point in the history of death penalty abolition in the U.S.

On September 21, the crowds amassed around the world to protest the killing of Troy Davis were the most visible sign that opponents of capital punishment were turning up the volume.  But that wasn’t the only sign. Throughout the year more and more voices from across the U.S. spoke out against the death penalty.


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.”


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.


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.