Oregon court upholds governor’s execution delay

SALEM, Ore. – Oregon’s governor can deny execution for a death row inmate who wants to die, the state’s highest court ruled Thursday, affirming a gubernatorial power that has been at the center of a debate over the morality of capital punishment.

The ruling settles an argument between Gov. John Kitzhaber and Gary Haugen, who was convicted of two murders, over whether Kitzhaber had the power to grant a reprieve that Haugen did not want.

Kitzhaber, a Democrat, opposes the death penalty and intervened weeks before Haugen was scheduled to be die by lethal injection in 2011. The governor vowed to block any execution during his term in office and urged a statewide vote on abolishing the death penalty.

The Legislature has shown little interest in putting it on the ballot in 2014. Kitzhaber renewed his request after the ruling Thursday, saying capital punishment “has devolved into an unworkable system that fails to meet the basic standards of justice.”

“I am still convinced that we can find a better solution that holds offenders accountable and keeps society safe, supports the victims of crime and their families and reflects Oregon values,” Kitzhaber said in a statement.

Haugen said the reprieve was invalid because he refused to accept it. He also argued that it wasn’t actually a reprieve but rather an illegal attempt by the governor to nullify a law he didn’t like.

Kitzhaber argued that his clemency power is absolute, and nobody – certainly not an inmate on death row – can prevent him from doing what he believes to be in the state’s best interest.

The court said there’s nothing in the Oregon constitution giving an inmate a right to reject clemency, and Kitzhaber was within his authority.

“The executive power to grant clemency flows from the constitution and is one of the governor’s only checks on another branch of government,” Chief Justice Thomas Balmer wrote.

The reprieve expires when Kitzhaber leaves office. His term ends in January 2015, and he hasn’t said whether he’ll run for another four-year term.