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Oregon Gov. Kate Brown explains why she commuted all of her state's death sentences

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, pictured in San Francisco in October, commuted the sentences of all 17 people on death row on her way out of office.
Jeff Chiu
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, pictured in San Francisco in October, commuted the sentences of all 17 people on death row on her way out of office.

Updated December 15, 2022 at 10:46 AM ET

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown began her tenure in 2015 by extending her predecessor's moratorium on executions.

Now, with just weeks left in office, she is commuting the sentences of all 17 people on death row in the state. They will instead serve life in prison with no chance of parole.

The Democrat announced on Tuesday that she would use her executive clemency powers to make the commutations, which took effect the following day. And she emphasized that, unlike previous commutations she's granted, they are not based on any "rehabilitative efforts" by the individuals on death row.

"Instead, it reflects the recognition that the death penalty is immoral," she said in a statement. "It is an irreversible punishment that does not allow for correction; is wasteful of taxpayer dollars; does not make communities safer; and cannot be and never has been administered fairly and equitably."

She also acknowledged the pain and uncertainty for victims as individuals sit on death row for decades without resolution, adding that she hopes this move "will bring us a significant step closer to finality in these cases."

Why Oregon?

Oregon has executed two individuals in the last half century, most recently in 1997. The state has abolished and readopted capital punishment several times throughout it history. Voters last brought the death penalty back in 1984, three years after the Oregon Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.

Then-Gov. John Kitzhaber imposed a moratorium in 2011, which Brown has continued, and a 2019 bill significantly narrowed the scope of what constitutes a capital offense in the state.

The following year, Oregon's Department of Corrections closed its death-row facility and moved those individuals into the general prison population. And the state Supreme Court struck down one inmate's death sentencein a major 2021 ruling that attorneys said could eradicate the sentence of dozens of others in the state.

Brown has used her power of clemency more than any of the state's previous governors, Oregon Public Broadcasting reports. She granted clemency to nearly 1,000 people during the COVID-19 pandemic, a move that sparked legal challenges but was ultimately upheld by an Oregon appeals court.

Brown tells Morning Edition's Rachel Martin that the majority of her clemency work has been geared towards moving Oregon towards a more equitable criminal justice system — and notes that a disproportionate number of those currently on death row in the state are people of color. She says this particular action is different because it's based solely on "the immorality of the death penalty."

"Justice is not advanced by taking a life and the state should not be in the business of executing people, even if a horrible, horrible crime or crimes placed them in prison," Brown says. "The death penalty also has never been administered fairly, consistently, or equitably in Oregon or frankly, across the United States."

Why now?

Brown stresses that she's made her personal opposition to the death penalty clear from the outset, and outlined the progress her state has made in that direction during her tenure. She has also ordered the state to shut down and empty its execution chamber, and told OPB that the rarely-used room will be repurposed.

It's not unusual for governors to wait until their final terms to exercise their clemency power, she tells Morning Edition (Oregon limits its governors to two four-year terms). According to the American Civil Liberties Union, several former and current governors from both parties have used those powers to commute their state's death rows, including Gov. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Gov. George Ryan (R-Ill.), and Gov. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.).

"It's certainly unacceptable to me that I would leave office without taking one final action to ensure that none of these individuals will be executed by the state," Brown says.

While Brown's decision has drawn praise from plenty of criminal justice advocates, it's also sparked backlash from some state Republicans (who make up a minority of the legislature) and family members of victims.

She says she's confident that her commutations would be upheld in court if challenged, citing the recent court of appeals ruling restating the governor's broad authority in this area. And she rejects the idea that she acted without a mandate from her constituents.

"I was elected by a majority of Oregonians, and I know that they share my values, that the death penalty is both dysfunctional and immoral. It is applied inequitably. And absolutely it does not make sense," Brown says. "And I will say that Oregonians have elected time and time again governors that oppose the death penalty."

What's next?

Gov.-elect Tina Kotek, also a Democrat, told OPB while campaigning that she is opposed to the death penalty because of her religious beliefs, and would continue the moratorium if elected.

Her spokesperson told Portland TV station KATU this week that Brown's decision "is generally aligned with her values."

Brown is the third Oregon governor to commute death sentences, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Gov. Robert Holmes commuted those imposed during his term in office from 1957-1959, and Gov. Mark Hatfield commuted all death row sentences in 1964.

This interview was produced by Paige Waterhouse and edited by Ally Schweitzer.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.