SALEM, Ore. – An Oregon death row inmate and the state's governor are at the center of an unusual legal battle -- the governor has granted the twice-convicted murderer a reprieve, even though the inmate did not ask for it and does not want it.
Gov. John Kitzhaber blocked Gary Haugen's scheduled execution last fall, saying no executions would be carried out on his watch.
Haugen has sought to reject the governor's clemency. He's voluntarily waived legal appeals that could delay his execution for years and has fought to speed his punishment in protest of a criminal justice system that he says is broken.
Their dispute was heard in court on Tuesday.
Oregon voters reinstated the death penalty in 1984, and the state has executed two people since then. Both occurred while Kitzhaber served as governor between 1995 and 2003. Both inmates had volunteered for execution, waiving their appeals.
After Kitzhaber was again elected in 2010, he announced he wouldn't allow any more executions while he was in office, saying he was haunted by the previous two. The governor has said he has no sympathy for Haugen but opposes capital punishment and believes Oregon's death penalty laws are "compromised and inequitable."
Haugen's attorney argued in court on Tuesday that Kitzhaber's reprieve places an "onerous condition" on the death row inmate because it leaves Haugen in the dark about whether he will ever be granted his wish to be executed, since a different governor could take a different position.
"It could be a day, could be seven years," Harrison Latto said of the reprieve. "During that indefinite period of time, they're saying, `sit tight and we'll tell you at the end of that period whether you'll be executed or not."
Latto argued Tuesday that three cases, from 1907, 1918 and 1926, require the subject of a reprieve to agree to it.
"A reprieve is not effective until accepted by the recipient," Latto said in Marion County Circuit Court. "Mr. Haugen does not accept this reprieve."
Latto also argued that the reprieve is illegal because it has no specific expiration date -- it lasts until the governor leaves office.
Kitzhaber's attorney, Tim Sylwester, said Haugen can only decline the reprieve if it comes with strings attached. He cited the case of a man who refused to admit guilt as a condition of a commuted sentence. In Haugen's case, Sylwester said no such conditions apply.
"He has a death sentence he can't challenge," Sylwester said. "Right now (with the reprieve) you're serving a life sentence, it's unconditional . so you can't refuse it."
Nationwide, governors in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Tennessee have issued blanket commutations of death sentences, along with those in Illinois, twice, and New Jersey.
Kitzhaber's action was different. Instead of granting clemency to all death row inmates, he forestalled their executions until he leaves office. The Democrat is eligible for re-election in 2014.
Two previous Oregon governors have issued blanket commutations of all death sentences. Gov. Robert Holmes commuted every death sentence during his 1957-1959 term, and Gov. Mark Hatfield commuted every death sentence after the state abolished them in 1964.
Haugen was sentenced to death five years ago for the killing of a fellow inmate. He was already serving a life sentence for fatally bludgeoning his former girlfriend's mother, Mary Archer.
Judge Tim Alexander said he will make a ruling within two weeks. If Alexander rules for Haugen, the previous death warrant in the case will move forward unless Kitzhaber's attorneys appealed.