A Death Row inmate in Oregon has called the Governor of the state, John Kitzhaber, a "coward" for announcing a moratorium on all executions for the remainder of his term.
Gary Haugen, a double murderer, had been scheduled to die by lethal injection on 6 December. That date with the executioner was abruptly put off, however, when Governor Kitzhaber, a Democrat, closed the death chamber saying the capital punishment system was "compromised and inequitable".
The Governor's move re-energised the legal duelling nationally between defenders of the death penalty and those who oppose it. Polls show growing support for punishments other than death for some categories of prisoner, including murderers, while an increasing number of states that have the death penalty are moving to reconsider and possibly repeal it. Illinois banned it this year.
The complaints of Haugen, made to a local Oregon newspaper, highlight a slightly different legal quandary faced by some states: if a Death Row inmate drops all resistance to the sentence imposed on them, as Haugen had done, should their wish to be executed without further legal ado be respected?
While in public statements Haugen at first applauded the Governor's decision, by this weekend he had changed his mind. He said he found out that he had been handed a reprieve after being shown the Governor's statement.
"I feel like he's a paper cowboy," the prisoner declared. "He couldn't pull the trigger." Haugen said that after a few day's reflection he had concluded that the Governor had "basically pulled a coward's move" because he was acting on his own beliefs and not respecting the wishes of the voters who had supported the reinstatement the death penalty in the state in 1984.
One of the peculiarities of capital punishment in the US is the completely inconsistent manner in which it is implemented in the 36 states that have it on their books, even when it comes to the manner of execution. Oregon is set apart because it says only those who are willing to die will be executed.
Noting that the state therefore only kills those who volunteer, Governor Kitzhaber called its system a "perversion of justice". Banning all further executions and promising to ask the state legislature to begin considering reforms, the Governor urged "all Oregonians to engage in the long-overdue debate that this important issue deserves".
For his part, however, Haugen, who killed the mother of his former girlfriend in 1980 as well as a prison inmate eight years ago, is preparing to seek legal advice on whether the Governor is within his rights to stop executions. "I think there's got to be some constitutional violations. Man, this is definitely cruel and unusual punishment," he suggested. "You don't bring a guy to the table twice and then just stop it."
The notion that inmates should be allowed to hasten their own deaths by firing their lawyers and dropping all legal opposition is not supported by John Blume, of Cornell University who wrote a study of the issue called "Killing the Willing". Part of the problem is assessing whether the inmates in question might be mentally ill.
"Most of these people aren't dropping their appeals because they believe it's the punishment they deserve," he told the Los Angeles Times.