Oregon Governor Commutes All Death Row Sentences

Kate Brown has left a parting gift for the state's worst criminals.

[Death penalty - image of a stretcher with shackles]

The Oregonian (“Gov. Kate Brown commutes sentences of all 17 people on Oregon’s death row“):

Gov. Kate Brown announced Tuesday that she would commute the sentences of all 17 individuals on Oregon’s death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole, the latest in her end-of-term string of clemency decisions.

“I have long believed that justice is not advanced by taking a life, and the state should not be in the business of executing people — even if a terrible crime placed them in prison,” Brown said in a statement sent out in a press release. “This is a value that many Oregonians share.”

The governor also directed the Department of Corrections to dismantle the state’s death chamber.

While I have come to oppose capital punishment in most cases, I have also come to believe the pardon power is antiquated and more likely to be abused than to serve any legitimate public good. Capitol punishment is explicitly permitted under Oregon law and I believe it to be an abuse of power to commute sentences imposed by juries simply based on personal morality rather than any specifics of the case.

Then again, there’s something cruel and bizarre about having people on death row without any intention of executing them. Which is the case in Oregon:

Oregon has not executed anyone on death row for a quarter century and Brown continued the moratorium that former Gov. John Kitzhaber put in place in 2011. Governor-elect Tina Kotek, who like Brown and Kitzhaber is a Democrat, is personally opposed to the death penalty based on her religious beliefs and said during the campaign that she would continue the moratorium.

Voters have gone back and forth on the death penalty over the years, abolishing and reinstating it repeatedly. Voters’ most recent decision on the death penalty was in 1984, when they inserted it into the state Constitution.

Oregon is one of 27 states that authorizes the death penalty, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

That’s just weird: the voters specifically put the death penalty into the state constitution in recent times but they have also elected back-to-back-to-back governors who refuse to carry out their duty. The result is a justice system that provides justice for no one concerned: the victims, the accused, or the community (as represented both in the jury pool and the electorate).

One of those death row inmates is Randy Lee Guzek, who was convicted in 1988 and sentenced to death for Rod and Lois Houser, of Terrebonne. Sue Shirley, the Housers’ daughter, said Tuesday she was aware of the governor’s decision to commute Guzek’s sentence, but had not heard from the state directly.

“I’m horrified and outraged and I don’t know what this means,” Shirley said Tuesday. “Will true life be true life?”

Shirley noted that Guzek has been resentenced four times over the past 24 years as the Legislature has changed rules, though his death penalty sentence has been repeatedly upheld.

“All I know is that we never get to have a say,” she said Tuesday. “Forty-eight jurors have said the just sentence was the death penalty, but that’s been a moving target. The Legislature has changed the rules time and time again and it’s just been a nightmare.”

That is, to coin a phrase, both cruel and unusual. Their daughter was murdered 34 years ago and they have been kept in limbo all that time, constantly jerked around by the system. And, while I have little sympathy, indeed, for the murderer, there’s something wrong about jerking him around, too.

In 2019, the Legislature passed a bill that limited the crimes that qualified for the death penalty by narrowing the definition of aggravated murder to killing two or more people as an act of organized terrorism; intentionally and with premeditation kilIing a child younger than 14; killing another person while locked up in jail or prison for a previous murder; or killing a police, correctional or probation officer.

To me, that’s just bizarre. There’s really no logic to these distinctions. What makes murdering a 13-year-old worse than murdering a 15-year-old? Or murdering a convicted criminal worse than murdering a law-abiding citizen? Or murdering a prison guard worse than murdering a brain surgeon?

But, of course, we’ve known for decades that the death penalty is unevenly applied based on race, class, and other distinctions.

More than two years have passed since the Brown administration dismantled Oregon’s death row, a move that acknowledged the effective end of capital punishment in the state.

While my initial reaction was that, again, this is something a governor shouldn’t have unilateral authority to do, the linked story makes clear that, in actuality, it was the Oregon Department of Corrections that made the decision (for a variety of reasons), not Brown.

Brown said in her statement Tuesday that commuting the sentences of people currently serving on Oregon’s death row was consistent with what she described as lawmakers’ “near abolition” of capital punishment.

“Unlike previous commutations I’ve granted to individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary growth and rehabilitation, this commutation is not based on any rehabilitative efforts by the individuals on death row,” Brown said. “Instead, it reflects the recognition that the death penalty is immoral. It is an irreversible punishment that does not allow for correction; is wasteful of taxpayer dollars; does not make communities safer; and cannot be and never has been administered fairly and equitably.”

Again, I don’t think governors or presidents should have this authority. It’s a bizarre holdover from the days of monarchy and has no place in a modern democracy. Why should the sympathies of the chief executive override the administration of justice? And, frankly, it’s made even worse by the fact that the power tends to get the most exercise during the lame duck period when the voters have no means of holding the leader accountable.

And, while it hadn’t occurred to me, I agree the timing is less than ideal:

Rosemary Brewer, executive director of the Oregon Crime Victims Law Center, said it was her understanding that Oregon Department of Justice Crime Victim and Survivor Services Division staff worked Tuesday to notify family members and had reached all of the families affected by the commutations. A spokesperson for the governor confirmed that DOJ handled notification. However, Brewer said the governor should have given families more advance notice of her decision.

“The victims should have been told about this so they had some time to prepare for it,” Brewer said. “These are horrific cases that left completely devastated families. They’re preparing for the holidays and all of a sudden, they see in the (newspaper) that the person who traumatized — devastated — their families had their death sentence commuted.”

My brain doesn’t work that way—I don’t get more emotional on anniversaries or holidays—but many people’s do.

The rest of the report comprises emotion-laden description of the crimes committed by those whose sentences Brown has commuted and the reactions of family members.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Law and the Courts, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Scott says:

    Given that innocent people have been executed by the state (not necessarily Oregon but certainly Texas), I would ban all capitol punishment. One mistake is too many and unforgiveable. The rest is just noise.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Scott: I think process matters. If Oregon wants to eliminate capital punishment—which I agree that it should, for the reasons you state—it should do so via the legislative process rather than on the whims of a retiring governor no longer accountable to the people.

  3. Modulo Myself says:

    It’s not like any of these people were set free. They’re going to be spending the rest of their lives in prison. More importantly, capital punishment is undisguised cruelty, and it’s almost as cruel for the victims’ families, because they’re caught up in something that is unresolved. We only have it because America is addicted to feeling besieged by crime and telling itself that its more violent than any other places, so it needs barbarity. Is America more violent? Statistically, sure. But what causes violence is endemic to human life, and it lives everywhere. What causes American violence is an addiction to being besieged and victimized and having no other solution than the dumbest one imaginable.

  4. KM says:

    Again, I don’t think governors or presidents should have this authority. It’s a bizarre holdover from the days of monarchy and has no place in a modern democracy. Why should the sympathies of the chief executive override the administration of justice?

    An understandable sentiment but the current view is its part of checks and balances. The administration of justice has been proven to be incorrect far, far too often to *not* have some sort of failsafe like this. If we had a system where the innocent didn’t have to fear being railroaded or murdered by the state for something they didn’t do, we wouldn’t need to have a single person retain the ability to be the last override. The governor is, in fact, your very last chance to live and their sympathy may be what saves a family from grieving every Christmas unjustly.

    Is it fair to the families of victims? No but then again, I think that should be a secondary condition or consideration at best. Families of non-violent crimes don’t seem to matter when sentencing happens even though they too are impacted when a loved one falls victim to a crime. It’s not like they’re being released immediately and we need to warn people for safety’s sake: they’re still going to die in prison, just not now. All this realistically is is a delay, something they’d be used to considering how long the process is. If you are so invested in your family’s attacker dying at the hands of the state that it ruins your Xmas to hear they’ll die in a few years and not next week, you need to seek help as you have not properly dealt with your grief and rage. That’s not justice, that’s vengeance and not something the state has any business in doing (especially as they keep getting it wrong)

  5. Stormy Dragon says:

    That’s just weird: the voters specifically put the death penalty into the state constitution in recent times but they have also elected back-to-back-to-back governors who refuse to carry out their duty.

    Allow me to explain away the weirdness: 1984 is not “recent times” and was nearly half a century ago. Indeed, the majority of the people in Oregon now weren’t even born yet in 1984

  6. TJ says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Indeed, the majority of the people in Oregon now weren’t even born yet in 1984


  7. KM says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    Also, placing something into the Constitution means it’s available as an option for prosecuting, not a demand to be carried out in every case. If they truly did want that, they would have removed or severely nerfed the governor’s power to commute as part of the package.

    Think of it like this, you have the 2A right to bear arms but even if you do own a gun, are not required to possess it on your person nor train or use it. It’s an option, not a mandate. Oregon’s voter base has changed so while the option remains, the will to enforce it has waned.

  8. Kathy says:

    I’ll borrow from Socrates, and state that doing the right things through the wrong process is far better than doing the wrong thing through the right process.

  9. Stormy Dragon says:


    Sorry, I made a math error (my fault for trying to do math before coffee) and got 2022-1984=48 instead of the correct value of 38. But it is true that more than half the population in the US is younger than 40.

  10. Stormy Dragon says:


    Mortality reminder of the day: Wil Wheaton is now older than Patrick Stewart was when Star Trek: the Next Generation first aired.

  11. BugManDan says:

    Their daughter was murdered 34 years ago and they have been kept in limbo all that time, constantly jerked around by the system.

    Maybe I am having a bad reading day today, but I think that the parents were murdered, not the daughter.

  12. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    As of 2022, the median age in Oregon is 39.1

  13. MarkedMan says:

    T0 me the most important reason for ending the death penalty doesn’t have anything to do with the defendant. It’s what it does to us as a society to construct an official infrastructure for killing, and what it does to the individuals we appoint and train as killers, or the doctors, wardens, guards, etc, who we train and authorize to enable them.

  14. Gustopher says:

    @Stormy Dragon: The Oregon death penalty is having a midlife crisis upon realizing that it is nearly 40 and has accomplished basically nothing.

  15. Just nutha says:

    When I first saw your sub-head, I thought “Dr. Joyner’s inner MAGAt is banging on the door to be let out.” The post itself is as balanced as you are probably capable of, but calling the move “a parting gift to the state’s worst criminals” is still hyperbole.

  16. Gustopher says:

    @Just nutha:

    calling the move “a parting gift to the state’s worst criminals” is still hyperbole.

    It does nothing to further the interests of white collar criminals or employers who commit wage theft, for instance!

    (Really, which is worse for society, one or two murders being especially brutal, or employers routinely stealing wages from their lower income workers?)

  17. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    It’s not like any of these people were set free.

    It’s also not like any of these people were ever going to actually be executed given that the last execution in Oregon was in 1997 (OPB article on the same story) and the previous one was in 1962, according to my friends at Google.

  18. dazedandconfused says:

    Perhaps it was a parting gift to Oregonian tax payers. The typical cost of completing the death penalty process grossly exceeds the cost of 100 years of incarceration in most states.

  19. de stijl says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    The US is basically middle of the road when it comes to violent crime per pop. There is, however, one key distinction.

    What distinguishes us is that gun violence begets many more deaths. We are middle of the pack in violence in OECD stats, and we are also off the charts in violent deaths per pop because of guns.

    Way off the charts. They have to do the thing where the fudge the y axis with the squiggly lines to include us. We have that more deaths than the mean.

    We, as a nation, are middle of the pack in violent confrontations per population. We are fairly chill. Average. It is just that our violent confrontations are much more likely to end in death because we are awash with guns.

    Average violence, off the charts fatalities by gun deaths. Hmm, I suspect a causality there….

  20. Dudley Sharp says:


    Innocents are more protected with the death penalty than without it. Te death penalty has enhanced due process, enhanced incapacitaion and enhanced deterrence over all other sanctions.

    There is no proof for an innocent executed in the US, at least since 1915,if then.

  21. Dudley Sharp says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    It is that unanimous juries have found that execution was the most just punishment for the murders and that the appellate courts had, so far, agreed and that many, if not all, of the loved ones of those murdered, agreed that execution was the most just.

  22. Dudley Sharp says:


    The justification for the death penalty is justice, as with all sanctions. In addition it protects innocents to a degree better than do lesser sanctions.

  23. Dudley Sharp says:

    @James Joyner:


    Scott’s facts and reasoning are not solid, as I detailed.

  24. Dudley Sharp says:


    That is untrue.

    Life without parole is usually 40-50 years in maximum security, with huge geriatric costs. In Calif, top max security is $176,000/yr/inmate with $80,000/inmate/yr in the geriatric unit.

    In addition, there is no plea bargain to LWOP without the death penalty.

    If you go to your link and read the Calif nonsense there, you will find that fact checking destroys it, as detailed:

    Death Penalty Costs: California