Gov. Kate Brown announced that she will commute the sentences of the 17 people on Oregon’s death row.(Photo by Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

For more than 10 years, Oregon governors have enforced a moratorium on executions. In one of her last acts as governor, Kate Brown went a step further, announcing Tuesday that she will commute the sentences of the 17 people on Oregon’s death row.

The list includes notorious killers, including a father and son who bombed a Woodburn bank in 2008 citing fears that newly elected President Barack Obama would take their guns, and a man who murdered his wife and young children and fled to Mexico. 

In a statement, Brown said the commutations didn’t reflect efforts by any of the death row inmates to rehabilitate themselves. 

“Instead, it reflects the recognition that the death penalty is immoral,” Brown said. “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.”

A Brown spokeswoman said the governor’s office spoke with Gov.-elect Tina Kotek’s team about the decision, and that the Oregon Justice Department’s victim advocacy staff have been notifying victims’ families.

“I also recognize the pain and uncertainty victims experience as they wait for decades while individuals sit on death row – especially in states with moratoriums on executions – without resolution,” Brown said. “My hope is that this commutation will bring us a significant step closer to finality in these cases.”

Brown’s office said in a statement that the 17 death sentences will be commuted to life without the possibility of parole. Her spokeswoman did not respond immediately to a follow-up question. 

Since she took office in 2015, Brown has pardoned or commuted sentences for nearly 50,000 people – most recently with a batch of 47,144 pardons for minor marijuana convictions from before the state legalized recreational marijuana in 2016. The 1,147 pardons or commutations Brown had issued as of September were more than those issued by every other Oregon governor in the last 50 years combined, according to an article in The Guardian

Criminal justice reform groups including the Oregon Justice Resource Center have applauded Brown’s focus on clemency. In a statement after Brown’s announcement, the center’s executive director, Bobbin Singh, said it was past time to end the death penalty.

“It’s been said before, but capital punishment is more a statement about who we are as a society than about the people we sentence to death,” Singh said. “Oregon should not be engaged in the state-sanctioned killing of its own residents; we should not pursue a policy that intentionally targets the poor, the broken, and those on the margins. Oregon enters a new era today where the values that make our state better come to the forefront and we leave behind the death penalty as a relic of a cruel past.”

Only two people have been executed in Oregon since 1984, the year voters approved a constitutional amendment adopting the death penalty in limited circumstances. Douglas Franklin Wright, a serial killer linked to seven deaths between 1969 and 1991, was executed in 1996. Harry Charles Moore, executed in 1997, was convicted of killing his half-sister and her former husband. 

Former Gov. John Kitzhaber oversaw both executions. In 2011, during his second stint as governor, Kitzhaber blocked a scheduled execution and declared a moratorium, which Brown continued. Kotek indicated during her campaign that she would continue that moratorium.

Capital offense limits

As governor, Brown ordered the closure of the state Department of Corrections’ death row housing unit, mixing people facing death sentences with the general prison population. And she signed a 2019 law that limited capital offenses to murdering a law enforcement officer or a child younger than 14, killing at least two people during a terrorist attack or killing someone in prison while serving time for a murder conviction.

The law wasn’t retroactive, but a 2021 Oregon Supreme Court ruling effectively made it so. In that case, the court revoked the death sentence of David Bartol, a member of a white supremacist gang who killed another inmate at the Marion County Jail while awaiting trial in 2013. 

Several other death row inmates have since had their death sentences revoked following the court’s precedent. Before Brown’s action, there were 17 people facing the death penalty, several of whom would not have been subject to the death penalty if they were sentenced today. 

That includes Randy Guzek, who in 1987 shot and killed Rod and Lois Houser of Terrebonne while burgling their house. Guzek has been sentenced to death four times, most recently in 2010, after courts ordered new sentencing trials. 

Former Clatsop County District Attorney Joshua Marquis prosecuted the case, and he said Brown’s action will make Guzek and a handful of others immediately available for parole because life without parole wasn’t a sentencing option before 1990. 

Marquis predicted that Brown’s commutations will result in legal petitions by some of the people on death row that would result in years of litigation and prisoners appearing before the parole board. 

“This is going to be a real horror show because of Kate in what is clearly last-minute grandstanding,” Marquis said. 

WHO WAS ON DEATH ROW?
• Jesse Compton: sentenced to death in 1998 for killing his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter, Tesslyn O’Cull. 
• Clinton Cunningham: sentenced in 1992 for raping and murdering 19-year-old hitchhiker Shannon Faith.
• Randy Guzek: sentenced in 1988 for murdering Rod and Lois Houser of Terrebonne in a botched burglary.
• Gary Haugen: sentenced to death in 2007 after killing fellow inmate David Shane Polin while serving a life sentence for killing his ex-girlfriend’s mother.
• Michael Hayward: sentenced in 1996 for killing convenience store clerk Frances Walls.
• Robert Langley: sentenced in 1989 for killing and burying Anne Louise Gray and Larry Richard Rockenbrant in two separate incidents in 1988.
• Christian Longo: sentenced in 2003 for killing his wife and three children.
• Ernest Lotches: sentenced in 1993 for killing a downtown Portland security guard, William G. Hall, while running away.
• Michael McDonnell: sentenced in 1988 for killing Joey B. Keever during a 1984 prison escape while serving time for perjury and theft.
• Marco Montez: sentenced in 1988 for raping and killing Candace Straub in Portland
• Horacio Alberto Reyes-Camarena: sentenced in 1997 for murdering Maria Zetina and attempting to murder her sister, Angelica Zetina.
• Ricardo Serrano: sentenced in 2010 for murdering Melody Dang and her sons Steven, 15, and Jimmy, 12.
• Matthew Thompson: sentenced in 1996 for killing Andrew J. McDonald and Paul Whitcher.
• Bruce Turnidge: sentenced with his son, Joshua, in 2011 for bombing a Woodburn bank and killing two officers in the explosion.
• Joshua Turnidge: sentenced with his father, Bruce, in 2011 for bombing a Woodburn bank and killing two officers in the explosion.
• Mike Washington: sentenced in 2010 for killing Mohamed Jabbie, a witness who testified about Washington previously assaulting him.
• Tara Zyst: sentenced in 1995 for killing Jeffrey and Dale Brown with a sword while they slept. Zyst, who is a transgender woman, was sentenced under the name Karl Terry.

Julia Shumway, Oregon Capital Chronicle

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.