Catholic Sentinel photo by Clarice Keating
Jake Ehers, 13, believes Oregon should outlaw the death penalty.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Clarice Keating
Jake Ehers, 13, believes Oregon should outlaw the death penalty.
Fifty questions marked 50 years since the last non-volunteer execution of a Death Row inmate in Oregon.

People who attended a rally coordinated by Amnesty International and Oregonians for Alternatives to the death penalty circled Pioneer Courthouse Square Aug. 31. Each person held a placard with a question mark and, one by one, rally-goers stepped out into the center of the circle to voice inquiries penned on the flip side of the boards.

“How does the death penalty make us safer?”

“Do we want to be Texas?”

“Seventeen states have abolished the death penalty. Why not Oregon?”

Following the rally, Regal Fox Tower 10 Theater presented Portland’s premier showing of Incendiary, a documentary about the conviction and execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, who many forensic experts claim was innocent of the killings of which he was accused.

“This is a public education event,” said Terrie Rodello, Oregon State Death Penalty Abolition coordinator. “Many people don’t even know there is a death penalty in Oregon.”

It is estimated that Oregon taxpayers are spending in excess of $20 million in each of the two years of the current bi-annum budget cycle on death penalty cases and related expenses.

When Gov. John Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on executions Nov. 22, 2011, stopping the planned execution of Gary Haugen, he called for “a long overdue debate on the death penalty.”

Fifty years ago, in August 1962, Leeroy McGahuey was put to death by lethal gas, for the murder of a Junction City woman and her child. McGahuey had exhausted his appeals.

Conversely, Douglas Wright was executed by lethal injection in 1996 and Harry Charles Moore died in a similar fashion in 1997. Both men gave up their right of appeal and chose to die.

Among the rally goers was Jake Ehers, 13, and his sister Emily, 13.

“It [the death penalty] hasn’t done anything good and it’s taking money that could be going to our education,” Jake said. “Some of my favorite teachers have been cut.”

Cindy Tyler, a member of St. André Bessette Church, attended the rally, as did seven other members of her parish.

“If you value the sanctity of life, you cannot agree to the barbarism of murder in the name of so-called justice,” Tyler said. “That’s just as much an oxymoron as the term Holy War.”

Jeff Ellis, Oregon Capital Resource council, provides assistance to lawyers and individuals who are facing or are under a death sentence. He helped organize the rally in response to the governor’s call to engage in debate about the effectiveness of Oregon’s capital punishment system.

“There’s this argument out there that the majority of people support the death penalty in Oregon so why should we have this discussion?” Ellis said. “But the majority of people supported a system that was promoted in 1978 as cheap and effective, and today we know it’s neither.”

In November, Californians will vote on a measure to abolish the state’s death penalty. If the measure passes, 725 inmates on Death Row in that state will have their sentences converted to life in prison.

“That will be something that we in Oregon ought to pay attention because it will be helpful in guiding our discussion about the death penalty,” Ellis said.