Paul De Muniz
Paul De Muniz
SALEM — A man convicted of aggravated murder shared the stage this month with a former superintendent of Oregon’s maximum security prison, a former director of the Department of Corrections, an award-winning journalist and a former Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice. The event, sponsored by Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, drew an overflow crowd at Willamette University’s Putnam Center.

St. Joseph and Queen of Peace parishes of Salem were both well-represented at the event. Pastors, parishioners and members of the peace and justice committees attended. Justice Paul De Muniz, the keynote speaker, is a member of Queen of Peace.

Speakers were advocates of repealing Oregon’s death penalty. They said the law has touched them personally, eroded the economy, damaged due process of law and shaken the foundations of morality.

Scott Cannon spent 11 years in the Oregon State Penitentiary until all charges and his sentence were vacated in 2010.

Frank Thompson and Dave Cook oversaw the only two Oregon executions in the past 50 years, as superintendent of the penitentiary and director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, respectively.

Naseem Rakha was the capitol reporter for Oregon Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio during that time. Rakha introduced the evening’s speakers including recently retired De Muniz, who gave a strong a three-part indictment of Oregon’s death penalty.

“The death penalty is getting a 'pass' from legislative scrutiny, when we are looking for ways to trim Oregon’s budget to fund starving schools and public safety,” said the former chief justice. “We currently have fewer state police today than we did in 1960," he added. Oregon has more than doubled its population, from 1.7 million to 3.8 million people since 1960.

De Muniz, who chaired the Governor’ Commission on Public Safety, urged the audience to continue advocating for a thorough audit of death penalty economics as a prelude to a repeal vote. The vote is expected by 2016.

Death penalty cases cost more than non-death penalty murder cases. Oregon spends about $28 million each year to maintain its death penalty system, even though there have been only two executions in the past five decades.

De Muniz pointed out what he described as the inordinate burden the death penalty puts on the justice system and the long time it takes for each convicted death row inmate to work though the appeals process. As a young lawyer, De Muniz defended a murder suspect sentenced to death in 1988. The inmate is still on death row.

De Muniz said a large number of death penalty cases have been overturned and returned to lower counts to start again either on sentencing, guilt or both. Records show that nearly half of all Oregon death penalty cases have been overturned. The length of the appeals process and the overturn rate add to the cost of the system.

The large crowd gave De Muniz a standing ovation.  

Cook, the former Director of the Department of Corrections, is also former Benton County Sheriff. He outlined his transition from favoring capital punishment to opposition. His reasons included expense, trauma on those staff members who participate in executions and the realization that the alternative of life without parole doles out punishment and keeps the public safe.

“I think that taking away someone's liberty is a more severe punishment than death would be," Cook said.

Thompson, former superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary, is a 25-year veteran of law enforcement and corrections. He anguished over those responsibilities with great concern for his employees.

“The fact that there have been 142 exonerations from death rows across the country, and many more like Scott Cannon here, for crimes they did not commit, suggests that we have also executed some innocent people in America," Thompson said. "It is not only a ‘failed public policy,’ it is immoral.”

In retirement, Thompson  frequently speaks publicly against the death penalty and in favor of replacing it with life without parole. Recently he testified before the Maryland Joint Judicial Committee as they debated legislation to repeal their law. Thompson was able to announce to the assembled crowd that Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley just that day had signed the legislation making his state the sixth in the past six years to repeal their death penalty. The announcement was met with thunderous applause.

“How thoroughly rewarding that was, after a career in corrections and law enforcement," Thompson said. "I now get to balance the scales a bit, helping to rid our states of a law that does not seem right to me.”  He said that, next to my having married his wife 47 years ago, overturning the death penalty is the most important thing in his life.

Another retired Oregon Supreme Court Justice, Edwin Peterson, is on the faculty of Willamette School of Law. He announced that he too would be speaking out publicly against the death penalty and in favor of a panel to study the costs.

Cannon, wrongfully convicted of aggravated murder, received a life sentence. He served eleven years and then was released when his conviction and charges were vacated in 2010. Cannon pointed to the many mistakes that are made in murder cases. When death is on the table, he said, a mistake could be fatal. Cannon’s wrongful conviction was based on false testimony and flawed forensic ballistic evidence, which the FBI and experts ruled out as “junk science.”

For more information call Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty at (503) 990-7060.