Oregon’s history tells story of a populace’s fickle approach to the death penalty.
Initially adopted in 1864, capital punishment has since twice been abolished and three times reinstated by a popular vote of the people. The one time the state’s Judicial Branch stepped in — holding it unconstitutional in 1981 — was not well received by the voters, who in turn amended the Constitution to reinstate it just three years later.
There are plenty of reasons why the outdated practice of capital punishment is not only unnecessary, but also unwise. And as a practical matter, Oregon hasn’t executed an individual since 1997— our court system makes it nearly impossible to accomplish.
It would seem that the Oregon Legislature is attempting to carve out some middle ground. While technically not abolishing the death penalty, House Bill 3268 effectively does just that by only allowing capital punishment in cases involving terrorism-related killing of more than one person. If history lends any perspective, the independent spirit of Oregon voters will not appreciate being dictated to by the courts or the Legislature, the bill’s nominal effect notwithstanding.
Rather than use valuable political capital pushing through legislation with little foreseeable benefit, Oregon’s politicians should engage in a campaign to educate the public on the folly of death row but allow Oregonians the ultimate say.
Developments in the social sciences, fiscal impact studies and our society’s capacity to protect itself from violent criminals speak volumes. The harsh nature of the death penalty has never proven to be a deterrent. Taxpayers actually save money when the state doesn’t engage in capital punishment. And most importantly, too many people are convicted and sentenced, only to find out later the verdict was incorrect.
In fact, the only rational support for capital punishment boils down to a human impulse for revenge. But contemporary psychology prescribes that any perceived gratification that one derives from revenge is not just short-lived, but often leaves an individual feeling worse than before. Revenge in the place of justice does not fill the void left when we lose a loved one.
Mrs. Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., knows as well as anyone the pain and heartbreak of the senseless murder of a loved one. And perhaps she says it best: “An evil deed is not redeemed by an evil deed in retaliation.”
Even more, perhaps Oregon’s ambivalence surrounding this highly controversial act lends insight. The state’s history of fluid value judgments regarding the death penalty provides a narrative of clashing interests, pitting the impulse for revenge against the instinctive squeamishness that tells us the government has the right and obligation to protect and to punish, but not to kill. The collective body ought to always set the bar high, and should never stoop to dangerously emotional impulses.
Until the people of Oregon come to this conclusion themselves, any legislative attempt to dictate value judgments appears futile and costly.
The death penalty is a societal agreement that warrants careful assessment. Oregonians have never backed down from that debate, and the time is right to have it again.