Trio of officials reflect on Oregon executions
Even as they carried out Oregon's most recent executions two decades ago, three top officials harbored doubts about the death penalty.
Though a couple of them have since made their positions known, a full exchange of views finally took place between Gov. John Kitzhaber, Corrections Director Dave Cook and Frank Thompson, superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary.
Only after Kitzhaber stayed the execution of Gary Haugen in 2011 during his return as governor — which also began Oregon's current moratorium on all executions — did he learn of Thompson's doubts 15 years earlier.
"I had no idea, and I never really talked to Dave about it," Kitzhaber said at the March 16 forum, which was sponsored by the Office of the Chaplains at Willamette University and Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
Thompson is on the group's board. Kitzhaber, Cook and forum moderator Emily Plec, a communications studies professor at Western Oregon University, are on the group's advisory council.
The group advocates life imprisonment without parole for the 33 men and one woman currently on death row at the penitentiary in Salem. It has not signaled when it may push for a ballot measure to repeal the death penalty, which has been in effect since voters approved its current form in 1984.
Oregon is one of 31 states with the death penalty, but also one of four — including Washington — where the governor has declared a moratorium on its use. Voters in 2016 upheld it in California, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
In 1996 and 1997, during his first term, Kitzhaber signed the death warrants for Douglas Franklin Wright and Harry Charles Moore — even though Kitzhaber opposed the death penalty while a state lawmaker from Roseburg. The issue did not arise during his 1994 campaign.
"When I ran for governor, I did not think it was even a remote possibility one way or the other," he recalled.
Just before the executions occurred, he added, "I was the only person on the planet who could have stopped that execution — and I executed those two people just as much as the persons participating."
Both inmates had waived further appeals, as did Haugen.
How they felt then
Before he was named superintendent of Oregon State Penitentiary in late 1994, Frank Thompson was asked whether he could carry out an execution.
Thompson came to Oregon as a prison warden from Arkansas, where the state executed an inmate convicted of two murders — including a police officer — who also had a self-inflicted brain injury. Then-Gov. Bill Clinton interrupted his presidential campaign to oversee that 1992 execution.
"That execution bothered a staff person so badly that shortly afterward, that person resigned," Thompson said. "So I was thinking about my staff" when it came to preparing for Oregon's first execution in 34 years.
The previous 1962 execution involved gas, so new protocols had to be written for lethal injection.
Thompson sought employees with law enforcement or military experience to train for and carry out the execution. "They had been trained to take the life of a human being," he said.
By law, Thompson — not Cook — was responsible for executions.
Cook was busy overseeing the expansion of a prison system that eventually doubled to its March 1 population of 14,654.
"I had no doubt after going to the penitentiary a couple of times watching Frank's preparation for this … that they would be successful in the act, putting aside the emotions from an execution," Cook said.
Before Cook was appointed in 1995 to succeed Frank Hall, Kitzhaber asked whether Cook was prepared to carry out an execution if need be.
"Having been a law enforcement officer for a number of years, you are prepared to be involved in a life-or-death situation," said Cook, who had been Benton County sheriff for six years.
"But it's an entirely different circumstance when it's an execution, as opposed to an event in which you are responsible to protect yourself or someone else."
Cook said he had conflicted feelings about executions because his father had been a doctor.
So was Kitzhaber, who contrasted his experience in saving lives as an emergency-room physician with his knowledge about what happens to the human body when a lethal drug is injected and the heart stops beating.
Still, he said, he was not certain he could alter the course of events.
"I did not wrap my mind around what was happening," he said. "I had this internal debate with myself about what to do."
But it became more real a few days prior to the executions, after two telephone lines were installed in his office, one to the attorney general and the other to the prison superintendent.
"They start testing the lines and you are sitting there by yourself while people are protesting out in the yard," he said.
Kitzhaber chose not to invoke the governor's authority to grant clemency in Wright's or Moore's cases.
Kitzhaber said it was only in the eight years between his tenures as governor that he realized he could do something different. He said so at a forum in Salem during his 2010 comeback campaign, but his comment drew little attention at the time.
Thompson said he never discussed his doubts with Cook, but the staff involved directly with the executions sensed them.
"We were good soldiers," he said. "We had a contract with the state — and it wasn't really us, but the state of Oregon that had this process in place."
Thompson said Wright's execution cost the state $80,000 in overtime.
"Frank did believe in the concept of training to the point where it became automatic," Cook said. "Maybe to a degree that helped people deal with the outcome."
Cook said he agreed with Thompson it was important to shield the identities of the employees participating in the execution. Observers saw only Wright and Moore strapped to a gurney just minutes before the lethal injections.
"There were some mighty angry people who felt they had been gypped out of being able to see the whole execution and all the detailed parts of that event," Cook said.
The Oregon Supreme Court ruled in 1999 against the agency's administrative rules, which limited what observers including news media representatives could see. They were still at odds when in 2001, a compromise specified an overhead camera that allowed observers to see the process but not identify participants. It has not been invoked because no executions have taken place since 1997.
"There was a legitimate reason to oversee that," Cook said, referring to botched executions that have occurred elsewhere.
What they think now
Thompson, after his retirement in 1998, took it upon himself to advocate for change.
"When you have reasonable alternatives, such as life (imprisonment) without the possibility of parole, you should not have put staff in a position of having to take the life of another human being," he said.
Cook, who retired in 2002, concedes he isn't completely sold on life imprisonment. He wants to see a Spartan existence for such inmates, such as the intensive management unit already in existence at the state prison, although not isolation.
But he is no longer convinced the death penalty is an effective deterrent to aggravated murder.
"If executions are going to have any impact on reducing murders or saving lives, then the person committing the crime has got to be cognizant of the fact that the possibility (of execution) exists," he said. "If you believe that is true, I completely disagree."
Kitzhaber, who resigned in 2015, said the death penalty and much prison spending deal with social problems after the fact — and that public funds are better spent on preventive programs for infants and children.
"What we do is spend money on acute problems, whether it means the death penalty or incarceration or foster care or heart attacks," he said. "What we don't spend money is on investments that can prevent those things."
By Peter Wong
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