EUGENE, Ore. (KMTR) – Opening arguments in a landmark death penalty case heard in front of Oregon Supreme Court on Thursday, as convicted killer Gary Haugen fights to be put to death while Governor John Kitzhaber is trying to prevent his execution.
The Oregon Supreme Court heard opening arguments on Thursday, March 14 in the case of Gary Haugen v. Governor John Kitzhaber. In a special event, the court held its proceedings at the University of Oregon School of Law in Eugene.
Haugen, 50, gave up his right to appeal his death sentence in 2011. However, since then Governor Kitzhaber has blocked Haugen’s attempt to be put to death. Kitzhaber says he’s “morally opposed to capital punishment” and has “long regretted” allowing two men to be executed in the 1990s. Those two men also voluntarily gave up their right to any further appeals to the death sentences they received.
Haugen was sentenced to death in 2007 after a second murder conviction. The first murder happened more than thirty years ago when Haugen killed his ex-girlfriend’s mother. Haugen was sentenced to life in prison for that crime. While serving the life sentence, Haugen killed a fellow inmate in 2004. That crime earned him a death sentence.
At the center of the case is whether or not Haugen can choose to accept or deny Governor Kitzhaber's reprieve.
The state says that Haugen has no choice and that he does not have to accept the Governor’s clemency offer for it to become legal. The state also says the Governor has chief authority over capital punishment enforcement in Oregon.
State attorneys argued Thursday that if the Oregon Supreme Court allows Haugen to turn down the Governor’s clemency offer. In effect, death row inmates would hold more power than the Governor with respect to the future of their sentence.
"That would mean that Mr. Haugen has or possesses, or believes he possesses, powers that are equal than or in fact greater than those that the Governor has that are enshrined in the Constitution in Article Five, Section 14 and that he, in essence, can override the Governor's Constitutional authority to issue clemency,” said Anna Joyce, Solicitor General for the Oregon Department of Justice.
Meanwhile, Haugen's attorney Harrison Latto argued that case law shows that the Oregon Supreme Court has always ruled in favor of inmates having to acknowledge and accept their clemency offer, like a contract.
Haugen’s attorney also argued that Governor Kitzhaber's reprieve is not in the pursuit of justice. He says the Governor’s reprieve is purely to satisfy the Governor’s own moral stance on the death penalty. Haugen’s attorney said the court has always acknowledged a reprieve as an act of grace or a favor. Analyzing the Governor’s definition of why he is granting Haugen a reprieve, Latto claims that the reprieve doesn’t serve Haugen, but rather a different motive.
"All of his reasoning is directed at the laws and all of those laws under the suspension clause and under the take care clause are not - they don't belong to the Governor - they belong to the people of the Legislative assembly,” said Harrison Latto, an attorney for Gary Haugen.
“The Oregon Constitution says the death penalty is legal,” said Latto.
If the court rules in favor of Haugen, law experts believe the decision could set a big precedent.
"It does shift to some extent a balance of power to in this case death row inmates, but really anyone who's the subject of any form of clemency to reject their clemency. I think one of the interesting situations it will set up, if the court rules in favor of Haugen is, what does the Governor do next?” said Carrie Leonetti, an Associate Professor of Criminal Procedure at the University of Oregon School of Law.
“This reprieve is here because all of us as citizens of this state are supposed to think about whether we want to continue to have a death a penalty,” said Leonetti.
The Oregon Supreme Court should make a decision on the case in the coming months; however, there is no deadline.