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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Oregon Lawmakers Consider Death Penalty Repeal

Oregon Department of Corrections

SALEM, Ore. – More than a year ago, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber stunned people by enacting a moratorium on the death penalty. It happened just weeks before the scheduled execution of two-time murderer Gary Haugen. At a hearing Tuesday, lawmakers took up the question of whether to ask voters to repeal the death penalty altogether. But it’s not clear whether that will actually happen.

Dan Bryant knows the unique pain of learning a loved one has been murdered. His mother was stabbed to death by a mentally-ill relative in 1998.

"Five years later, her killer died while under the care of the State Hospital," Bryant says. "His death did nothing to bring closure, relief or any sense of justice to me or my family."

Now, the Eugene minister is asking lawmakers to send a repeal of the death penalty to Oregon voters. Ending capital punishment in Oregon would have to be done at the ballot. That's because Oregon voters put it in the state Constitution nearly 30 years ago.

Supporters of a repeal such as Portland Democratic Representative Jules Bailey say the death penalty is costly and carries the risk of executing someone who is innocent.

"We can do better than this as Oregonians and we can do better for Oregonians by imposing a life sentence for a life taken."

Few people spoke up in favor of the death penalty at the legislative hearing, though Oregon prosecutors have long fought any attempt to ban capital punishment.

For Terri Hakim, it's a personal matter. Her husband, Oregon State Trooper William Hakim, was one of two officers killed when a bomb exploded at a Woodburn bank in 2008. Two men are now awaiting execution for the murders. And Hakim wants to make sure they stay on death row.

"If my husband was still alive doing his work, I probably wouldn't be here today," she says. "It is now affecting me personally."

There are 37 people on Oregon's death row. Just two killers have been put to death since Oregon reinstated the death penalty in 1984. But both men in those cases dropped their appeals -- in a sense volunteering to die.

The governor back in the 90s who let those executions proceed was John Kitzhaber. He’s now back in office and he regrets that decision. The Democrat is lobbying lawmakers to send voters the death penalty repeal. But fellow Democrat and House Judiciary Committee Chair Jeff Barker closed the hearing without calling for a vote.

"There was a lack of support from some members. I don't think we would have the votes today to have moved it."

That leaves the fate of the legislation in doubt, even before it faces the scrutiny of Oregon voters.

On the Web:

Capital Punishment in Oregon - Oregon Department of Corrections
Narrated tour of Oregon's execution chamber - Capitol Currents