Gov. Brown’s death row decision marks step toward better system of justice
A common argument for the death penalty is that it provides “closure” for the victims’ families but that’s not the case
Gov. Kate Brown's decision to commute the sentences of prisoners on death row saves families the grief of continued appeals. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
Gov. Kate Brown’s announcement last week that she was commuting the death sentences of the 17 remaining people on Oregon’s death row to life in prison is an important step toward ending a system of justice that creates more victims than it purports to help.
I first encountered the consequences of capital punishment when reporting on Oregon’s last two executions, one in ’96, the other in ’97. In those cases, the prisoners had stopped their appeals saying they would rather be killed than continue sitting in a cell. With no appeals pending, the state was forced to move forward with what they euphemistically called the “procedure.”
From the moment I stepped into the Oregon State Penitentiary for our first briefing, I could sense the tension among staff. No one, then Superintendent Frank Thompson told us, wanted to do this job. But it was the job they had been given and he intended to conduct it with as much dignity as he could.
Years later, Thompson confessed that at the time of the executions he considered capital punishment problematic; he knew it had proved to be discriminatory, had likely resulted in the execution of innocent people and was extraordinarily expensive. Still,Thompson thought it had its place. He abandoned that view after his experiences with the ‘96, ‘97 executions.
“The death penalty is a dismal failure,” he told a group gathered for a forum held by Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Newly retired, Thompson had sought out the group to help him shed light on his experience. “After each execution,” he announced from a church podium, “I had staff members who decided they did not want to be asked to serve in that capacity again. Others quietly sought employment elsewhere. A few told me they were having trouble sleeping, and I worried they would develop post-traumatic stress disorder if they had to go through it another time. I don’t think the public understands what they are requiring of decent, professional men and women to go in and take the life of a human being in the name of a policy that can not be shown to work.”
My own Interviews with people who have worked on executions confirm Thompson’s observations. Many break into tears talking about their experience, even if it occurred decades previously. Some spoke of feeling haunted by their role. Nurses who insert the intravenous needles, tie-down teams, jurors, judges, even janitors sent in to clean the death chamber, all describe their experience as a kind of stain they’d been unable to wash away.
And while I have spoken with some death penalty proponents who don’t have much sympathy for those psychologically wounded by their role in an execution, their indifference cracks when they learn how capital punishment harms those we should be helping the most — the loved ones of murder victims.
A common argument for the death penalty is that it provides some kind of “closure” for victim families. The execution of the person who killed a spouse or parent or child, will end a families vigil for justice. It will balance the scales and create a path forward. “Revenge is sweet” they are told.
But in all my interviews, I have not once heard of that being true. Instead, a sentence of death is typically a decades long slog for the victims’ families. Each appeal is another slice at the original wound. Each news article and interview request just another reminder that justice has not been restored.
And then, finally, when the execution does occur, the victims’ families discover the wretched truth: The promise of closure was a chimera, as thin and flimsy as the tissue they reached for as they watched the state kill a human being. Vengeance, it turns out, provides cold and empty comfort.
Which is why I applaud Brown’s decision to commute the sentences of the 17 people on Oregon’s death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Yes, there are victim families who feel like the rug has been swept up from under them. I hope, however, that they discover what so many murder victim families have discovered in cases in which the death penalty was either not an option or was not pursued: Healing is a much more realistic option when one is not waiting for justice to be served to them on a gurney.
A sentence of life with no possibility of parole makes one solid commitment: Justice will not be delayed. It begins the moment the condemned is led from the courtroom, shackled for the rest of their natural life by the weight of their heinous act. Instead of the verdict being the beginning of a long march with no closure, it is the beginning of a much needed path to healing.
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