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(Also published at What Would Jack Do?)

SALEM -- Gov. John Kitzhaber announced today he will not allow the execution of Gary Haugen -- or any death row inmate -- to take place while he is in office. The death penalty is morally wrong and unjustly administered, Kitzhaber said. "In my mind it is a perversion of justice," he said at an emotional news conference in Salem.... The announcement is a win for death penalty activists who had asked Kitzhaber to declare a moratorium on executions until the state conducts a thorough review of its death penalty system. Kitzhaber said his decision is not out of compassion for Haugen or other inmates. But the death penalty is not handed down fairly -- some inmates on death row have committed similar crimes as those who are serving life sentences, he said. It is a criticism Haugen himself has often made and cites as a reason that he has volunteered to die, protesting the unfairness of the death penalty.

Racially biased, often arbitrary, and far too often subject to political considerations, state-sanctioned murder (What else could it reasonably be called?) represents more often than not the satisfaction of a collective blood lust. I'm well aware of the "eye for an eye" argument, but I'll leave the philosophical and moral underpinnings of the mechanics of the death penalty to other, more nimble intellects. No, my argument is with the often capricious and racially-skewed manner in which the death penalty is applied. A tip of the hat goes out to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, who has placed a moratorium on executions during his tenure. Saying that the death penalty fails the "basic standards of justice, Kitzhaber makes a compelling argument for reevaluating a system that's out of control, both financially and morally.

My personal belief is that the death penalty is immoral, even if every flaw in the current system was to be fixed and it became completely equitable. Simply put, two wrongs don't make a right. Killing someone guilty of a heinous crime may make us feel better about ourselves in the short term, but I believe that killing someone, whatever the justification may be, chips away at our claim to humanity. Snuffing out one human life as retribution for a life or lives lost does not redress the balance. It doesn't pay a debt to society, because there's no way to put a value on a life.

I understand that there are those who feel that there are some crimes so heinous, so inhuman, and so beyond the pale that the only credible and appropriate punishment is death. I'm not prepared to go that far, but, for the moment, let's go with that for the sake of argument. If we're to make the case that killing a person is appropriate in certain cases, how do we ensure that this penalty is applied equitably and equally in all applicable cases? How do we ensure that race doesn't play a factor? Or a person's access to quality legal representation? Or any number of other factors that skew the current system? How are we to ensure that the death penalty is applied dispassionately and not subject to mob mentality or political considerations?

The biggest problem with the death penalty, at least from where I sit, is there's no way to ensure the system is perfect. Given the finality of the death penalty, perfection isn't and shouldn't be an unrealistic expectation. There's no "Oops; our bad!" in capital punishment. How do you "un-kill" someone? You can't, of course...and so we're left with a system in which the odds of executing a quite posstibly innocent person are unacceptably high (see Willingham, Cameron Todd).

John Kitzhaber should be applauded for having the courage to take a moral stand and for suggesting the need for us to have a conversation about how (or if) we can move forward with the death penalty. I've felt for some time that it's long past time that we have a national conversation about the death penalty.

Or are we really OK with a system that could possibly execute innocent people to satisfy our collective bloodlust? Should we be debating what an acceptable margin of error is...and if we are to have that debate, what does that say about our humanity?


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