In Oregon, a new debate on halting executions

Residents ask: Did governor exceed his powers?

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Mr. Kitzhaber urged the state legislature to “bring potential reforms before the 2013 legislative session,” but has not introduced legislation nor formed a commission to study the issue. He said he would favor replacing the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole.

The governor said he was disturbed by a number of issues, particularly the specter of inmates becoming “volunteers” for execution by giving up their appeals. The two inmates executed in the 1990s both abandoned the appeals process, as did Haugen.

“To those who will inevitably say that my decision today compromises the will of the voters, let me point out that, in practice, it is the current system itself which compromises the will of the voters,” said Mr. Kitzhaber. “I do not believe for a moment that the voters intended to create a system in which those condemned to death could determine whether that sentence would be carried out.”

David Fidanque, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, said he would be “very surprised if the governor didn’t get legal advice to confirm that he had the power to do this before he did it.”

Greg Leo, spokesman for the Oregon Republican Party, called the governor’s action “unconstitutional” and predicted a lawsuit, although not one by his party.

“This is ripe for judicial review. He’s made a unilateral policy decision, not just about Gary Haugen, but about something the voters have been very clear on,” said Mr. Leo. “You’d think the governor wouldn’t decide that there are certain laws he would enforce and certain laws he wouldn’t enforce.”

Oregon voters have swung back and forth on the death penalty, twice repealing it and twice reinstating it. The issue appeared on the ballot most recently in 1984, when a capital punishment amendment was approved with 75 percent of the vote.

If there is a lawsuit, it may come from an unlikely plaintiff: Haugen. In an interview with the Salem Statesman Journal, Haugen called the governor a “paper cowboy” and said he was considering a legal challenge.

“I’m going to have to get with some serious legal experts and figure out really if he can do this,” the killer said. “I think there’s got to be some constitutional violations.”

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