Gov. Hickenlooper must grapple with morality of supporting the death sentence
When Aug. 18 comes and Nathan Dunlap lives or dies on the say-so of Gov. John Hickenlooper, we will know more about both what kind of governor he is and what kind of man.
We can judge him as a governor on a scale from Texas Gov. Rick Perry — 235 people executed over nearly 11 years — and Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon, who declared a moratorium on the death penalty in his state in 2011.
In his book, “Fed Up,” Perry wrote, “In the State of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, or you kill a police officer, you’re involved in another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas and that is you will be executed.”
Like his predecessor, George Bush, Perry takes this duty in stride, seeming to feel no moral compunctions about some of the questionable cases he commits to death.
As CBS reporter Arlette Saenz reports, Perry “drew cheers from the audience (at a Republican debate in California) when he said he loses no sleep over the executions conducted in Texas and that the death penalty serves as the ‘ultimate justice.’”
By contrast, Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on executions in Oregon in November 2011. Kitzhaber had approved two previous executions, but later came to regret these decisions.
“They were the most agonizing and difficult decisions I have made as governor and I have revisited them over and over again during the past 14 years,” he said.
Faced a third time with a life-or-death decision, Kitzhaber released a statement, saying, “I simply cannot participate once again in something I believe to be morally wrong.”
In addition to his moral objections, Kitzhaber noted that “in practice, Oregon has an expensive and unworkable system that fails to meet the standards of justice. ... I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer; and I will not allow further executions while I am governor.”
Robert Bloch, formerly a chief deputy district attorney for the Arapahoe County district attorney’s office, wrote to Hickenlooper, “Our system is broken. It is not handed down in the manner in which it was intended, to defendants who have committed the most egregious crimes. It’s used in fewer than 1 percent of the cases where it could be used, and it is used in ways that reflect existing, systemic biases in our criminal justice system.”
As repeated studies have shown, the death sentence itself is arbitrary. Influenced by such factors as wealth and status, geographic location, race and gender, similar crimes even in the same county can send one murderer to death, while another gets life.
The same flaws in the system that compelled Kitzhaber to suspend executions would justify a similar decision by Hickenlooper. Ignoring those systemic flaws makes the execution inherently cynical.
Kitzhaber, though, goes beyond mere objection to the arbitrary and capricious application of the death penalty to take an individual moral stand. He refuses to take part in something he considers morally wrong.
“Ultimately, the moral question surrounding capital punishment in America has less to do with whether those convicted of violent crime deserve to die than with whether state and federal governments deserve to kill those whom it has imprisoned,” wrote New York University law professor Bryan Stevenson. “Death sentences are imposed in a criminal justice system that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent. This is an immoral condition that makes rejecting the death penalty on moral grounds not only defensible but necessary for those who refuse to accept unequal or unjust administration of punishment.”
Kitzhaber’s recognition that the moral responsibility for signing a death warrant falls, not on the state or the public, but on the individual is one Hickenlooper should take to heart.
The governor can follow the examples of Bush and Perry, expediting the killing machine of the state, or he can assert the moral authority of Kitzhaber and say enough killing, at least until the process can be assured to be fair.
The choice belongs to Hickenlooper alone.