In recent days, the words “death penalty” have been on the minds of many in our Northwest neighborhood because of one that was carried out – and one that wasn’t. It would be easy to say “that was yesterday’s news” and go on with life. Maybe for some. Not me.

Idaho put the terminal cocktail in the arm of a guy who – without doubt – deserved exactly what he got. No question. Oregon – faced with a fella proven just as guilty and who wanted to die – stopped short. He didn’t die and likely won’t.

To a lot of folk, those were the two main characters in the recent ongoing struggle of our society to live with the death penalty. But were they? There are hundreds of convicts on death rows in our Northwest prisons. Any two of them could have been the ones on the table. No, the main characters seemed to me to be the rest of us. And the actions of the two governors on whose watch those executions were scheduled.

Idaho’s Governor Otter flew off for meetings in Hawaii a few days before Paul Rhodes was to die. Sort of demolishes the old scene of officials at the prison waiting around the phone for a last-minute call from the governor’s office upholding or stopping the execution. I’ve known Otter for many, many years and I wouldn’t want to accuse him of not paying attention to the Rhodes death date. And they do have phones in Hawaii. But the image. The seemingly “I’ll go on with my schedule” attitude from someone with the power of life and death in his hands. That trip – no matter how important it may have been – conjures up terrible images – especially for those who don’t know Otter personally.

Oregon’s Governor Kitzhaber, on the other hand, created a completely different set of scenes. For weeks – if not years- before the execution date for Gary Haugen, Kitzhaber wrestled with the situation. Not just Haugen. But the whole issue of state-sponsored killing. We know because he said so. And he said so in a lengthy and powerful statement, read with shaking voice and trembling hand.

Kitzhaber allowed the death penalty to be carried out during a previous term as governor. But you need to know Kitzhaber is a physician. He has taken the Hippocratic oath all doctors take containing the oft-quoted phrase “…do no harm.” After reading his lengthy statement and listening to his wavering voice, I’d guess the oath came in for second consideration to a man truly conflicted with exercising the constitutionally-granted power of legally taking a life.

Death penalty supporters are jumping up and down, claiming Oregon’s Governor has “usurped the power of the people” by commuting Haugen’s sentence. They’re wrong. He didn’t. He has the power to do just what he did. It’s in our constitution. His job description.

Oregonians have twice approved the death penalty and twice rejected it. The last balloting affirmation for its use – 56%-44% – was in 1984. I’ve always been a bit suspicious of the validity of voting on the subject because so few of us have any firsthand experience with it. Most people’s views seem based on emotion. This is one subject where emotion should be no part of the decision process. Oregon’s back-and-forth polling is more proof of that.

Many of us who closely follow politics and political people become somewhat cynical after so many years. Usually with ample evidence. It comes from politicians lying to us – as is currently being done by some of the national Republican presidential wannabees. It comes from being told by politicians “black is white and white is black” when you know that’s not the case. It comes from watching good people – some of whom may be friends – succumb to money and power rather than sticking to principle.

Kitzhaber’s actions – his demeanor – his willingness to face repercussions from voters – his determination to take a stand against what he feels is a moral wrong – his deep personal searching – all these things are a wake-up call to us cynics. I don’t know the man but I’ve much more respect for him and the humanity he’s exhibited than many others who govern. And I’m now more likely to take his word on other issues because of his personal honesty with this one.

Whether you favor the death penalty – or oppose it – is not the issue here. The issue is what we have all learned about one man’s efforts to do his job without sacrificing his core beliefs. Regardless of penalties he may later face himself.

If you oppose the death penalty, you will likely applaud what he has done – or wouldn’t do. If you support the death penalty, you should applaud as well. Because you have ample evidence that someone with a personal moral compass is making other decisions on other issues – some of which may be equally important to you.

We may be in better hands than we thought.

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