Death Penalty Oregon

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown speaks to reporters in February in front of pictures of previous state governors in Salem.

Like Kate Brown, who replaced him as Oregon governor, John Kitzhaber wanted to do away with the death penalty in the state.

But at least Kitzhaber respected his constituents enough to recognize that this matter ought to be left to voters rather than the legislative or executive branches.

When Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on executions in Oregon in 2011, he supported the idea of putting the issue on the ballot. This was eminently reasonable — the last time voters decided on the death penalty, in 1984, 55% who cast a ballot supported execution as a possible punishment.

Moreover, that vote amended the Oregon Constitution, which means the voters, having decided capital punishment should be an option, also reserved for themselves the option of changing their mind.

Not that the sanctity of the Constitution has proved much of a deterrent for Brown and the Democrats who control the Legislature. They not only haven’t shown much interest in consulting voters about the death penalty, but this year they passed a law that severely narrows the definition of aggravated murder — the only crime punishable by execution in Oregon.

And although their intent was that the new law would apply only to future cases, the Oregon Justice Department concluded the law could potentially also affect defendants who have already been convicted.

The bottom line here is that Brown and her backers in the Capitol, being legally precluded from reversing voters’ 1984 decision, have been striving to thwart the electorate’s will anyway.

Oregon has changed quite a lot in the past 35 years, with the electorate trending toward the left side of the political spectrum. It may well be that a majority would choose to remove capital punishment from the Constitution. Brown and the Democrats should advocate for giving voters that chance.

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