In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning

To cope with his dread, John Kitzhaber opened his leather-bound journal and began to write.
It was a little past 9 on the morning of Nov. 22, 2011. Gary Haugen had dropped his appeals. A Marion County judge had signed the murderer's death warrant, leaving Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, to decide Haugen's fate. The 49-year-old would soon die by lethal injection if the governor didn't intervene.
Kitzhaber was exhausted, having been unable to sleep the night before, but he needed to call the families of Haugen's victims.
"I know my decision will delay the closure they need and deserve," he wrote.
The son of University of Oregon English professors, Kitzhaber began writing each day in his journal in the early 1970s. The practice helped him organize his thoughts and, on that particular morning, gather his courage.
Kitzhaber first dialed the widow of David Polin, an inmate Haugen beat and stabbed to death in 2003 while already serving a life sentence fo…

Ohio: Clemency appropriately applied by the governor

Raymond Tibbetts
Ross Geiger took the extraordinary step of writing to the governor last week. On Thursday, John Kasich responded in a considered and appropriate way. The governor issued a temporary reprieve for Raymond Tibbetts, who was scheduled for execution by lethal injection next Tuesday. Now the Ohio Parole Board will revisit the Tibbetts case.

In his 4-page letter, Geiger offered a unique viewpoint. He served on the jury that convicted Tibbetts for 2 killings and sentenced him to death 2 decades ago. Geiger explained to the governor that the jurors had no doubt about Tibbetts' guilt. He and another juror did have concerns about a death sentence, yet they eventually joined their colleagues in the required unanimity.

What spurred him to write was his look at the documentation accompanying the most recent clemency hearing. Geiger told the governor that he learned things for the 1st time, so much that he concluded: "Based on what I know today I would not have recommended the death penalty. ..."

A trial involving the death penalty has 2 phases, the first deciding whether the defendant is guilty, and the 2nd, if needed, to weigh whether a death sentence fits according to the law. A defendant has the opportunity to present mitigating evidence. What Geiger discovered is how little of the available mitigating evidence reached the jury.

Tibbetts didn't just have a tough childhood. It was filled with trauma almost from the start, including repeated abandonment, abuse that continued in foster homes, drug and alcohol addiction. Yet his trial attorneys brought just 1 witness, a psychiatrist, before jurors to discuss these circumstances. Geiger told the governor he was shocked to learn that Tibbetts' sister was available to testify, but she wasn't called to the witness stand.

That left 2 impressions: No one cared enough about Tibbetts to prevent his execution and that prosecutors must be right, the Tibbetts siblings, in contrast, leading normal lives. Now Geiger knows differently, the siblings with their own troubled lives.

The point Geiger makes about these and other failings in the trial process isn't to excuse somehow the awful crime committed by Tibbetts. Rather, his concern goes to whether Ohio should execute Tibbetts. He reasonably asks the governor: "... if we are going to have a legal process that can send criminals to death that includes a special phase for mitigation shouldn't we get it right?"

One of the virtues of giving the governor the power of clemency is that it provides a backstop for justice, in particular, when information emerges after a conviction and avenues to the courthouse essentially are closed. The governor ends up as the one authority in position to assess all that is known.

In this instance, John Kasich has exercised that power just as it should be done. Now the parole board must do its part, giving the Ross Geiger letter the weight it deserves, Ray Tibbetts spared execution for life without parole.

Source: ohio.com, Beacon Journal/Ohio.com editorial board, February 9, 2018

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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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