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17 People from Death Row to Life in Prison

Gov. Kate Brown commuted all of her state's death sentences

12/21/2022, 11:38 a.m.
17 People from Death Row to Life in Prison
Governor Kate Brown in Office
 AP- Gov. Kate Brown’s decision to commute all of the state’s 17 death sentences and dismantle the state’s execution chamber has some, including a former prison superintendent-turned-abolitionist, lauding the move as the humane choice. Brown is a Democrat with less than a month remaining in office.

Others, including a small city mayor whose town was left scarred by a fatal bank bombing, see the change as a derailment of justice. While Oregon has long wrestled with its position on capital punishment — voters have alternately abolished and reinstated it several times over the past century — in recent years the state’s Department of Corrections has been phasing out death row and the Legislature has passed a law narrowing the circumstances in which the death sentence can be imposed. Brown signed Senate Bill 1013 in 2019.


Brown’s order, which took effect on December 14th and changes the 17 inmates’ death sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole, cites that state law along with “the declining support for the death penalty in Oregon” as part of the impetus behind her decision.


The former superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary, Frank Thompson, who oversaw the state’s two most recent executions in 1996 and 1997, has pushed for repealing the death penalty since leaving the position. He testified in favor of SB 1013 and welcomed Brown’s announcement.In a phone interview with The Associated Press, Thompson described shouldering the “huge responsibility” of overhauling the state’s capital punishment methods. When he began working as superintendent in 1994, Oregon was still conducting its executions by lethal gas.


“The protocols had not been updated to promote executing anyone by lethal injection,” Thompson told AP. “I don’t know that I can put into words how daunting and how tremendous that responsibility weighed on me.”Thompson said that supervising executions, and training staff to conduct them, took an emotional toll that changed his stance on the death penalty.


“There have been restless nights. There have been dreams. There has been counseling of others that were a part of the process who were having difficulties,” he said. “But my involvement in the abolition movement for getting rid of the death penalty has been very redeeming for me.”


Advocates for crime victims have been more critical of Brown’s decision, saying it denies justice for people whose lives have been affected by violent criminals.During the coronavirus pandemic, Brown granted clemency to nearly 1,000 people convicted of crimes. Two district attorneys, along with family members of crime victims, sued the governor and other state officials to stop the clemency actions. But the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled in August that she acted within her authority.


Brown is known for exercising her authority to grant clemency. She granted clemency to nearly 1,000 people convicted of crimes. Two district attorneys, along with family members of crime victims, sued the governor and other state officials to stop the clemency actions. But the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled in August that she acted within her authority. The prosecutors, in particular, objected to Brown’s decision to allow 73 people convicted of murder, assault, rape and manslaughter while they were younger than 18 to apply for early release.


Brown noted that previously she granted commutations “to individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary growth and rehabilitation” but said that assessment didn’t apply in her latest decision.