Oregon Gov. Kate Brown today announced that she will use her executive clemency powers to commute the death sentences of all 17 people on Oregon’s death row to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
“I have long believed that justice is not advanced by taking a life, and the state should not be in the business of executing people—even if a terrible crime placed them in prison,” the governor said in a statement.
The commutation follows a steady decline in the use of capital punishment in Oregon.
Since the death penalty was enacted in 1984, Oregon has executed two people, one in 1996 and one in 1997. Both waived their appeals and “volunteered” for execution.
Then Gov. John Kitzhaber presided over both executions. In 2011, he denounced Oregon’s “compromised and inequitable” capital punishment system and announced a moratorium on executions in the state.
Gov. Brown continued the moratorium when she took office in 2015, and in 2019, she signed legislation that cut the categories of murder punishable by death from 19 to four, calling the state’s death penalty dysfunctional, costly, and immoral.
Only one person has been sentenced to death in Oregon since June 2014.
“Since taking office in 2015, I have continued Oregon’s moratorium on executions because the death penalty is both dysfunctional and immoral,” the governor said in a statement announcing today’s commutations. Death is an irreversible punishment that wastes taxpayer dollars, fails to make communities safer, and is unfair and inequitable in practice, she added.
“Today I am commuting Oregon’s death row so that we will no longer have anyone serving a sentence of death and facing execution in this state. This is a value that many Oregonians share.”
The governor’s order takes effect on December 14, 2022.
The Oregon Department of Corrections announced in 2020 that it would close its death row unit and move people with death sentences into the general prison population.
“Governor Brown has done a great service to the people of Oregon and modeled the kind of principled leadership we need across the nation,” EJI Director Bryan Stevenson said. “Despite efforts by many, our system is too subject to error and mistake to impose a punishment that requires perfection.”
“We don’t need executions to advance public safety,” Mr. Stevenson said. “We need smart leadership, which is inspiring to see from Governor Brown.”
This is not the first time Gov. Brown has exercised her clemency powers to reign in extreme sentences. Last year, she issued a commutation to provide parole eligibility for people who were children when they were sentenced to 15 years or more in prison.
Oregon’s movement away from the death penalty tracks the national trend. Last year marked the seventh consecutive year with fewer than 30 executions and 50 new death sentences nationwide.
This year is on track to continue the long-term decline of capital punishment in most states. Seventeen people have been executed so far this year in just five outlier jurisdictions—Alabama, Arizona, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas—that are becoming increasingly extreme in their pursuit of death sentences and executions.
There’s no sharper contrast with Oregon than Alabama, where state officials recently executed Joe James after a multi-hour botched attempt to access a vein and then engaged in back-to-back failed attempts to execute Alan Miller and Kenny Smith. Alabama’s governor has ordered a review of the state’s protocols with the stated goal of continuing to execute inmates.