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My View: Oregon's death penalty moratorium helps us escape the horrors of a botched execution

Because of the November 2011 moratorium that Gov. John Kitzhaber declared on executions, the gruesome events that unfolded during the April 27 execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma did not happen here.

But for our governor’s bold leadership, it could have.

Oklahoma officials injected Mr. Lockett with a “newly tried” cocktail of drugs that caused him to “writhe and gasp,” and cry out in pain minutes after he’d been declared unconscious. At one point, he “tried to rise [from the table] and exhaled loudly,” prompting prison officials to pull a curtain in front of witnesses.

An execution that should have taken little more than 10 minutes stretched to an agonizing 43 minutes, and ended with Lockett dying of a massive heart attack. 

Our constitution requires that if a state wishes to use the death penalty, we must guarantee that it is not cruel and unusual punishment. And for good reason.

Prison officials, led by the superintendent of the state Department of Corrections, are required to perform executions. I was that superintendent in 1996 and 1997, when the only two executions that have taken place in the past 50 years in this state were carried out.

I was part of a team that included: Gov. Kitzhaber; Dave Cook, the director of the Department of Corrections; a group of top-level correctional administrators; correctional staff; local, state and county law enforcement officials; and the Justice Department. Because of our concern about the psychological and emotional well-being of our staff, we spent about $85,000 in overtime for training alone.

But even with all of that training, there is never a guarantee that something won’t go terribly wrong — like it did in Oklahoma, and Ohio prior to that, and in so many other states that continue to require their prison officials to take another human life.

Try to put yourself in the shoes of those prison officials in Oklahoma who participated in the execution of Lockett. They were just doing their jobs. While I am horrified by the manner of Lockett’s death, I also grieve for the prison personnel who were asked to do a job with inherent and intolerable risks.

In my view, we must stop tinkering with the machinery of death. Oregon’s prison personnel do an exceptional job of running safe prisons. Individuals convicted of aggravated murder sentenced to life without parole should

die in prison, but not by requiring the good men and women who work in our prisons and who serve all Oregonians to use untested and risky method of killing.

Only by ending the death penalty can we guarantee that what happened in Oklahoma does not happen here. Let’s do just that.

Frank Thompson is a retired superintendent of the Oregon Department of Corrections.