Oregon's Death Penalty

OpEd in The Oregonian, Thursday, December 29, 2005

Many people have read columnist Steve Duin's five-part saga of the murder of Rod and Lois Houser and the thus-far 17-year voyage of their killer, Randy Guzek, through the legal system.

The Oregonian's editorial board expressed its own frustration over the irony that Guzek survives and is likely to for at least another decade or two. I have strong feelings on the case, having twice argued the death penalty for Guzek to Deschutes County jurors and want to respond to some of the letters and one commentary by William Long ("Facing the failings of our death penalty law," Dec. 16) on the case.

Long argues that life without parole should replace the death penalty as the ultimate sanction. But what would happen if we substituted "life" for "death"? If the past is any indication, we should expect more innocents to die. People will die at the hands of killers serving "life" whether they did their time and were released (Richard Marquette of Salem) or escaped (Carl Cletus Bowles of Eugene). I have no doubt that without the specter of death for some of the worst killers (like Edward Morris, who slaughtered his family in rural Tillamook County, and child-killer Ward Weaver) they would never have agreed to forgo a trial in return for a sentence of life without parole.

The resources and time invested in aggravated murder cases in which death was not a possibility is almost as great as capital cases. Oregon provides a very high level of defense for those indigents accused of murder, as it should. But to claim, as one letter writer did, that "if Guzek were a rich celebrity [he] would be a free man" is ridiculous. Guzek's guilt has never been questioned since a jury convicted him in 1988. He may not be a celebrity, but he has had and continues to receive the defense of a very rich man.

Another series of letters, some by sincerely dedicated foes of Oregon's death penalty, claim that capital punishment is neither a deterrent nor justice. Honest people can differ on the morality of the state-sanctioned taking of a killer's life, but recent studies from Emory University, the University of Colorado and several other academic institutions show that for every death penalty that is carried out, approximately 17 murders are deterred.

The research is so compelling that it has led progressive legal scholar Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago to publish a provocative paper titled "Is Capital Punishment Morally Required? The Relevance of Life-Life Tradeoffs." Sunstein argues that if we know with certainty that using capital punishment saves roughly 18 lives by preventing that many murders for each execution, how can we justify not employing the death penalty? The studies he relies on are conducted mostly by nonideological economists, one of whom even made a point of expressing his own dislike for capital punishment, believing it was racist.

No one has been released from Oregon's Death Row because anyone argued he was factually innocent. The racial composition of Oregon's Death Row mirrors the overwhelmingly white population of the state, while several of the victims of those on Death Row were people of color.

Oregon's prosecutors continue to be appropriately sparing in the number of times they seek the death penalty. Oregon juries are even more discriminating in when they impose it. It seems the one thing we can all agree on is that waiting 20 to 30 years for a killer to be punished is absurd.