Outgoing Democratic Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced Tuesday she'd be commuting the sentences of 17 people remaining on the state's death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
"I have long believed that 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 said in a prepared statement.
Oregon hasn't executed a prisoner since 1997. Under current Oregon law, only a conviction for aggravated murder is punishable by death (and this punishment is enshrined in the state's constitution). In 2019 Brown signed a bill that restricted the use of the death penalty even further, applying it only to murders in cases of terrorist acts by members of organized groups, killings of children, murders by people already incarcerated for murder, and premeditated murder of police officers.
Brown extended a total moratorium on executions put into place in 2011 by her predecessor, Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber. Brown is leaving office due to term limits, and Gov. Elect Tina Kotek, also a Democrat, has said she'll continue to extend the moratorium.
In a brutal sort of symmetry, 17 people have been executed in other states this year. They all took place in five states—Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, Missouri, and Alabama—all through lethal injections. Mississippi is set to execute Thomas Edwin Loden Jr., 58, this evening for raping and killing a teenage girl in 2000. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, he's the last execution scheduled for the year.
Brown is blunt in her statement that the commutations aren't about whether those convicted have shown themselves deserving of mercy but instead about the flaws of the death penalty itself:
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. 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.
President Joe Biden could follow in Brown's footsteps if he chose to do so. He campaigned on a promise to work on ending the federal death penalty (which he once supported). That's not quite what has happened. The Justice Department in July 2021 implemented a temporary moratorium on executions (even as it also fought for the authority to execute Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev). A bill to end the federal death penalty has stalled in Congress. But Biden is well within his authority to echo Brown and commute the sentences of the 79 prisoners currently on federal death row.