Democratic Oregon Gov. Kate Brown commuted the death sentences of all 17 prisoners awaiting execution in the state, meaning the once-condemned inmates will now serve life without parole for their crimes. File Photo courtesy of the state of Oregon
Dec. 14 (UPI) -- Democratic Oregon Gov. Kate Brown commuted the death sentences of all 17 prisoners awaiting execution in the state, meaning the once-condemned inmates will now serve life without parole for their crimes.
The order went into effect on Wednesday, less than a month before Brown is set to leave office. The outgoing governor posted excerpts of her order to social media, in which she called the death penalty "immoral."
"Justice is not advanced by taking a life, and the state should not be in the business of executing people-even if a terrible crime placed them in prison," she wrote.
Republican lawmakers in the state House blasted Brown's decision to issue the commutations, with Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson putting out a statement that accused the governor of exercising "a lack of responsible judgment."
"Gov. Brown has once again taken executive action with zero input from Oregonians and the Legislature," Breese said. "Her decisions do not consider the impact the victims and families will suffer in the months and years to come. Democrats have consistently chosen criminals over victims."
In the commutation order, Brown acknowledged the "pain and uncertainty" that families are forced to endure while waiting years, sometimes decades, for executions to be carried out.
"My hope is that this commutation will bring us a significant step closer to finality in these cases," she wrote.
Like many states, Oregon's history with capital punishment predates the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that banned capital punishment throughout the United States between 1972 and 1976.
Prior to that, Oregon abolished capital punishment in 1964 but reinstated the practice in 1978 until the state Supreme Court outlawed it again in 1981. By 1984, U.S. executions were again declared constitutional, and Oregon legalized them once more, but the state has not carried out an execution since 1997.
In 1996, death row inmate Douglas Wright became the first prisoner executed by lethal injection in Oregon, and prisoner Harry Moore met the same fate in May 1997.
In 2011, previous Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber suspended capital punishment altogether, and Brown has maintained that moratorium since she took office in 2015. She also signed a 2019 law that tightened restrictions on the death penalty in all capital cases.
During her time as governor, Brown has been criticized for her leniency toward thousands who had been convicted, some for serious crimes. In November, the governor vacated more than 47,000 convictions for marijuana possession under 1 ounce. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Brown also granted clemency in more than 1,100 criminal cases. This prompted a lawsuit from victims and their families, but in August, the Oregon Court of Appeals found that Brown's actions did not constitute an abuse of power.
In the order Brown signed Tuesday, she noted the reasons why she had often chosen the path of clemency.
"Unlike previous commutations I've granted to individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary growth and rehabilitation, this commutation is not based on any rehabilitative efforts by the individuals on death row," Brown said in a statement.
"Instead, it reflects the recognition that the death penalty is immoral. 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."