Residents of Oregon are worried that their disgraced governor, John Kitzhaber, will commute the sentences of all 34 inmates on the state’s death row before he leaves office Wednesday morning. The decision would be irrevocable.
Kitzhaber has long been passionately against the death penalty even as he has championed the state’s assisted-suicide law. In 2010, running for his third term, he waited until after his narrow election victory to announce he would not allow anyone to be executed during his time in office. Now he is leaving office after revelations he had allowed his fianceé to collect big bucks from green-energy groups and then ordered state employees to act in a manner furthering the couple’s interests.
Lars Larson, a prominent local talk-show host in Portland, says the danger is real that Kitzhaber will leave office the way moderate GOP governor George Ryan did in Illinois in 2002: by currying favor with his old allies. “He’s angry with his fellow state officeholders, who dumped him in a short few hours last week. He’s angry at the news media. He’s facing down the barrel of federal charges that could send him to prison or bankrupt him.
“What does he have to lose?” Larson told me.
“On the other hand, gutting the death sentences of a few dozen killers will make him a hero in the minds of some. And it may distract the media attention he and his girlfriend are getting.”
Indeed, the death penalty was on Kitzhaber’s mind when he announced he was leaving office on Friday. He pointed to his refusal to follow the will of the people on the death penalty as a hallmark of his “leadership” as governor.
Josh Marquis, the district attorney of Clatsop County, is appalled at the prospect of Kitzhaber overturning the jury verdicts of so many criminals. “He (Kitzhaber) does have the power to do this, but I think it would be a tragedy and catastrophic for many people in many different ways,” Marquis told OregonLive.com. He noted that seven of the 34 on death row were sentenced before Oregon had a “true life” in prison law passed in 1990 and will quickly become eligible for parole.
“Families of murder victims will be dragged back to Salem to testify in parole-board hearings, hoping they can keep the killer behind bars a few more years,” says Larson. “They will have to relive the agony of the crimes that took their loved ones.
Among the seven is Randy Lee Guzek, who during his first trial and subsequent appeals was convicted unanimously by four separate juries who all recommended the death penalty. In 1987, he chased down and shot a woman as she huddled in her closet and then stripped the rings off her fingers. Another inmate eligible for parole if his sentence is commuted is Marco Montez, who viciously murdered a woman in a hotel room after raping her.
Despite pleas for closure from the families of victims, Governor Kitzhaber refuses to comment on speculation he will act to empty out death row. We’ll just have to wait for him to leave office to see if he will engage in a final insult to the voters of Oregon.