Outgoing Oregon governor does what advocates are calling on North Carolina’s to do: commute death sentences

On Tuesday Oregon Gov. Kate Brown commuted the sentences of 17 people on death row, changing their punishment to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The commutations build on Brown’s historic use of her office’s clemency power. A story in The Guardian from earlier this year says that she has granted more commutations and pardons over her two terms than all of Oregon’s governors from the past 50 years combined. As of September she had pardoned or commuted the sentences of 1,147 people.

Brown, a Democrat who took office in 2015, commuted those sentences on her way out the door. She’ll be out of office come the new year. What she did Tuesday is what advocates are calling on Gov. Roy Cooper to do: commute the sentences of the people on North Carolina’s death row before he leaves office and potentially gives turns the executive branch over to someone less willing to acknowledge the racial inequities present in the criminal justice system.

On Saturday more than 100 people marched two miles from Central Prison — where 133 of 135 of those on North Carolina’s death row reside — to the governor’s mansion. They demanded Cooper commute the sentences, which are disproportionately given to Black people. They argued that the state’s use of capital punishment is inextricable from the state and nation’s racist past. (The governor’s own Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice has noted that the death penalty has a “relationship to white supremacy.”)

North Carolina hasn’t executed anyone since 2006, but that hasn’t stopped juries from sentencing people to death as recently as this year. there are 10 trials on dockets across the state next year that could end in a death sentence for the accused.

Legislators have taken on at least pausing the death penalty, but they didn’t pass a bill through both chambers. State senators passed a bill in 2003 that would have placed a temporary moratorium on executions, but it was never heard in the House.

The power to commute the state’s death sentences flows through Cooper’s office. As governor, he has wide latitude to change the nature of prison sentences or pardon people convicted of crime. It’s a power insulated from interference by the legislature, but it’s one he and his predecessors have rarely used since the early 2000s.

The politics in Oregon are different than North Carolina. Brown is in her last few weeks on the job, unlike Cooper, who will be in office through 2024. (Though Brown did effectively end capital punishment two years ago when her administration dismantled Oregon’s death row.) Oregon lawmakers passed a bill in 2019 that restricted the state’s use of the death penalty. Brown’s successor, Gov.-Elect Tina Kotek, has said she opposes the death penalty and would continue the moratorium that has been in place in Oregon since 2011. And Oregon voters have abolished and reinstated the death penalty multiple times since 1914, something North Carolinians have not done since the state assumed responsibility for executing people in 1910.

In her statement, Brown framed the commutations as a form of grace for those already condemned to die behind bars. Unlike the times she’s used her clemency powers for people who have shown growth and rehabilitation in the years after committing their crimes, Brown said the commutations were not based on any of the 17 death row prisoners’ good conduct.

“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,” she said in a public statement. “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. My hope is that this commutation will bring us a significant step closer to finality in these cases.”

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Outgoing Oregon governor does what advocates are calling on North Carolina’s to do: commute death sentences