Gov. Kate Brown announced on Tuesday afternoon that she would commute the sentences of all 17 individuals on Oregon’s death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole, the latest in her end-of-term string of clemency decisions.
“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,” Brown said in a statement sent out in a press release.
“This is a value that many Oregonians share,” Brown said.
Oregon has not executed anyone on death row for a quarter century and Brown continued the moratorium that former Gov. John Kitzhaber put in place in 2011. Governor-elect Tina Kotek, who like Brown and Kitzhaber is a Democrat, is personally opposed to the death penalty based on her religious beliefs and said during the campaign that she would continue the moratorium.
Voters have gone back and forth on the death penalty over the years, abolishing and reinstating it repeatedly. Voters’ most recent decision on the death penalty was in 1984, when they inserted it into the state Constitution.
Oregon is one of 27 states that authorizes the death penalty, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Randy Lee Guzek was convicted in 1988 and sentenced to death for Rod and Lois Houser, of Terrebonne. Sue Shirley, the Housers’ daughter, said Tuesday she was aware of the governor’s decision to commute Guzek’s sentence, but had not heard from the state directly.
“I’m horrified and outraged and I don’t know what this means,” Shirley said Tuesday. “Will true life be true life?”
Shirley noted that Guzek has been resentenced four times over the past 24 years as the Legislature has changed rules, though his death penalty sentence has been repeatedly upheld.
“All I know is that we never get to have a say,” she said Tuesday. “Forty-eight jurors have said the just sentence was the death penalty, but that’s been a moving target. The Legislature has changed the rules time and time again and it’s just been a nightmare.”
In 2019, the Legislature passed a bill that limited the crimes that qualified for the death penalty by narrowing the definition of aggravated murder to killing two or more people as an act of organized terrorism; intentionally and with premeditation kilIing a child younger than 14; killing another person while locked up in jail or prison for a previous murder; or killing a police, correctional or probation officer.
More than two years have passed since the Brown administration dismantled Oregon’s death row, a move that acknowledged the effective end of capital punishment in the state.
Brown said in her statement Tuesday that commuting the sentences of people currently serving on Oregon’s death row was consistent with what she described as lawmakers’ “near abolition” of capital punishment.
“Unlike previous commutations I’ve granted to individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary growth and rehabilitation, this commutation is not based on any rehabilitative efforts by the individuals on death row,” Brown said. “Instead, it reflects the recognition that the death penalty is immoral. It is an irreversible punishment that does not allow for correction; is wasteful of taxpayer dollars; does not make communities safer; and cannot be and never has been administered fairly and equitably.”