21 December 2022 :
Gov. Kate Brown commuted the sentences of 17 people on death row, changing their punishment to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The commutations build on Brown’s historic use of her office’s clemency power. A story in The Guardian from earlier this year says that she has granted more commutations and pardons over her 2 terms than all of Oregon’s governors from the past 50 years combined. As of September she had pardoned or commuted the sentences of 1,147 people.
Brown, a Democrat who took office in 2015, commuted those sentences on her way out the door. She’ll be out of office come the new year.
Calling the death penalty “both dysfunctional and immoral,” Oregon Governor Kate Brown has commuted the death sentences of the 17 prisoners on the state’s death row. The commutations, which the governor announced on December 13, 2022, went into effect December 14 and resentenced the prisoners to life without parole.
Brown’s commutations are the culmination of what she characterized as “the near abolition of the death penalty” by the state legislature in 2019. At that time, Oregon amended its death-penalty statute to significantly limit the crimes for which capital punishment can be imposed. In 2021, the Oregon Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of David Ray Bartol, finding that it violated the prohibition on “disproportionate punishments” in the Oregon constitution. Experts and advocates said at the time that the rationale for that decision made it likely that every death sentence in the state would be overturned as a result of the 2019 law.
Oregon has had a moratorium on executions since 2011, when then-Governor John Kitzhaber announced he would halt executions. The state’s last execution was in 1997. Upon taking office in 2015, Brown said she would maintain the moratorium. In 2020, after the new death penalty law went into effect, Oregon closed its death-row facility and moved death-row prisoners into the general prison population, marking another step in the dismantling of the state’s capital punishment system.
In her statement announcing the commutations, Brown called the death penalty “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.” She said the commutations were “consistent” with the legislature’s effort to functionally end the death penalty.
Brown is the third Oregon governor to commute death sentences. In 1964, following a referendum in which Oregon voters approved a ballot question repealing the state’s death penalty law, Gov. Mark Hatfield commuted the sentences of everyone then on death-row. Previously, Gov. Robert D. Holmes had commuted every death sentence that was imposed during his term in office from 1957–1959.
The 17 commutations are the only clemencies that have been granted to death-row prisoners in 2022. Brown is the seventh broad grant of clemency to death-row prisoners by a governor in the last 50 years, and the second largest. On January 10 and 11, 2003, Illinois Gov. George Ryan pardoned four death-row prisoners and commuted the sentences of 167 others, clearing Illinois’ death row. Five other governors exercised their clemency powers to commute the death sentences of every death-row prisoner in their states: Gov. Pat Quinn commuted the death sentences of the 15 prisoners on Illinois’ death row when he signed the bill that prospectively abolished the death penalty in 2011. Gov. Jon Corzine commuted the death sentences of the eight prisoners on New Jersey’s death row in 2007, the day before he signed the bill that abolished the state’s death penalty. Gov. Toney Anaya commuted the death sentence of the five prisoners on New Mexico’s death row in 1986. In 2015, Gov. Martin O’Malley commuted the death sentences of the four prisoners still on Maryland’s death row after the legislature’s prospective abolition of capital punishment in 2013. Gov. Jared Polis commuted the death sentences of the three prisoners still on Colorado’s death row after the legislature’s prospective abolition of capital punishment in 2020.
Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste commuted the death sentences of 8 death-row prisoners just before leaving office in 1991.
Brown has served the maximum two terms as governor permitted under Oregon’s constitution and will leave office in January 2023. Her successor, Tina Kotek, has said she is also opposed to the death penalty, and would maintain the moratorium on executions in the state.
Oregon has executed two individuals in the last half century, most recently in 1997.
The 17 people whose death sentences were commuted are:
Jesse Compton; Clinton Cunningham; Randy Guzek; Gary Haugen; Michael Hayward; Robert Langley Jr.; Christian Longo; Ernest Lotches; Michael McDonnell; Marco Montez; Horacio Reyes-Camarena; Ricardo Serrano; Matthew Thompson; Bruce Turnidge; Joshua Turnidge; Michael Washington Jr.; Tara Zyst