Lynn Strand, a member of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Lake Oswego and vice chairwoman of the board of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
Lynn Strand, a member of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Lake Oswego and vice chairwoman of the board of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

The end of the death penalty in Washington state could spark a similar outcome in neighboring Oregon, say leaders of the local abolition movement.

“Clearly, both Washington and Oregon have a conflicted and reluctant history with the death penalty,” said Lynn Strand, a member of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Lake Oswego and vice chairwoman of the board of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Strand points to both moral and fiscal reasons that Northwesterners want to nix executions.

“Annually, Oregon is wasting over $29 million taxpayer dollars to maintain a death penalty that is not used,” she said. “This is a failed public policy that should be repealed.”

The Washington Supreme Court on Oct. 11 ruled that use of the death penalty is arbitrary and racially biased and converted sentences for the state’s eight death-row inmates to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty includes a faith committee that will work to get Catholic parishes and other churches involved in an abolition campaign here. On the committee is Roger Martin, former Republican state lawmaker and longtime lobbyist for the Catholic Church in Oregon. Efforts also are underway at Oregon Catholic high schools.

Ron Steiner, a member of Queen of Peace Parish in Salem, has served as chairman of OADP, a volunteer grassroots group. He will stay involved but has turned the lead over to Lance Mayhew, a member of The Madeleine Parish in Northwest Portland. OADP’s board now includes 13 people, the largest in its history.

“Killing human beings is immoral,” said Mayhew, a local travel and food writer.

Despite the similarity between Washington and Oregon sentiment, Oregon’s death penalty is part of Oregon’s constitution. That’s why Oregon abolitionists are aiming to work through the state Legislature instead of the courts.

As in Oregon, executions have been rare in Washington. Five Washington prisoners have been put to death in recent decades. In 2014, Gov. Jay Inslee imposed a moratorium blocking its use.

In Oregon, which has a moratorium set down by Gov. John Kitzhaber and extended by Gov. Kate Brown, only two inmates have been executed since voters reinstated the death penalty in 1984. There are 34 inmates on Oregon’s death row.

It was on Kitzhaber’s watch during his first terms in the 1990s that the last two Oregon prisoners were executed, mostly because they begged for death. That experience seemed to weigh on his mind when he announced the moratorium in 2011.

“The death penalty as practiced in Oregon is neither fair nor just; and it is not swift or certain,” Kitzhaber said. “It is not applied equally to all. It is a perversion of justice that the single best indicator of who will and will not be executed has nothing to do with the circumstances of a crime or the findings of a jury.”

Washington became the 20th state to abolish the death penalty by legislative act or court decree, the seventh since 2014. New forensic science has shown a horrifying fact — the wrong people get sentenced to death now and then. Since 1973, 161 people sentenced to death have been exonerated in the U.S.

Some fiscal hawks support the Washington state ruling. “Conservatives in Washington state and across the country increasingly realize the death penalty is a failed government program that does not value life, threatens innocent people, and wastes money,” said Hannah Cox, national manager of the organization Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.

Not only is the death penalty racially biased, it is “extraordinarily expensive and does not do much to deter violent crime,” writes William Kelly, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas and the author of four books on criminal justice reform. In an opinion piece published Oct. 17 in the Houston Chronicle, Kelly argued that the Washington state ruling may help abolition efforts nationwide.

Kelly wrote that capital cases in Texas cost about $2.5 million each, about 10 times the cost of a comparable non-death penalty case.

The death penalty’s use already is declining. There were 300 death sentences imposed in 1995. In 2012, the number dropped to 82. Last year, it was 39. One reason, Kelly wrote, is that states have been giving judges and juries options in the form of sentences of life without parole.

Two-thirds of the world’s countries have abolished the death penalty, including all of the nations of the European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and every other major U.S. trading partner with the exception of China and Japan. The top five countries in terms of executions are China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United States. 

Three states — California, Florida and Texas — have nearly 50 percent of the nation’s death row population. 

Catholic News Service contributed to this report.

For more information

Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty


Catholics in abolition leadership

In Washington and Oregon, Catholics have been prominent in efforts to abolish the death penalty. The Catholic bishops of Washington on Oct. 11 applauded the unanimous decision of their state Supreme Court striking down the death penalty as unconstitutional.

“Today’s decision by the Supreme Court indicates a move toward greater justice and greater respect for life at all stages,” said a statement issued by the Washington State Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the bishops.

“The Catholic Church’s consistent belief is that every human life is sacred from conception until natural death — it is this principle that has energized our efforts for decades to abolish the death penalty," said Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain.

Portland Archbishop Alexander Sample, who ministers in prisons regularly, has called Oregon’s death penalty a “blight” and voiced support for ending it.

For centuries, Catholic teaching recognized that capital punishment was necessary in rare cases to protect society. But St. John Paul II in 1999 called state executions “cruel and unnecessary” during a Mass in St. Louis. The Catholic catechism was changed to say that modern methods of incarceration meant the reasons for executions no longer exist. 

In 2005, the U.S. Catholic bishops issued a statement opposing the death penalty. Pope Francis called for global abolition during his 2015 address to Congress, saying “a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation."

This summer, Pope Francis made a definitive statement, changing the catechism to read: “The death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” The catechism adds that the church “works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

The Association of U.S. Catholic Priests praised the Washington court ruling, with members promising to pray that people in other states “where the death penalty is still imposed will find truth in the decisions of the Washington state justices.” The association of clergy also offered prayers “for those in prison, that they may repent of the actions that put them on death row and commit themselves to using their lives to grow into ever better persons. May the transformation they will pursue help bring peace to their victims and families and enable them to extend Christ-like forgiveness.”

Ed Langlois