Gov. Kate Brown commutes the sentences of all 17 death row inmates to life in prison without parole
(Update: Reaction from Sen. Tim Knopp, Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson, prosecutor Joshua Marquis)
Move includes notorious Terrebonne killer Randy Lee Guzek - or does it? Prosecutor says state law change, court ruling already removed his death penalty
SALEM, Ore. (KTVZ) — Gov. Kate Brown announced Tuesday that she will use her executive clemency powers to commute the sentences of the 17 individuals on Oregon’s death row to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
“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," the governor said in her announcement, which continues in full below.
“Since taking office in 2015, I have continued Oregon’s moratorium on executions because the death penalty is both dysfunctional and immoral," Brown continued. "Today, I am commuting Oregon’s death row, so that we will no longer have anyone serving a sentence of death and facing execution in this state. This is a value that many Oregonians share.
“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. 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. My action today is consistent with the near abolition of the death penalty that has been achieved through SB 1013.
“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.”
The Governor’s order takes effect Wednesday, Dec. 14.
Brown's list, attached to her order, of the 17 death row inmates whose sentences are being commuted includes notorious killer Randy Lee Guzek, now 53, who was sentenced to death his role in the brutal 1987 shooting deaths of Rod and Lois Houser at the couple's Terrebonne home.
Guzek, who was 18 at the time of the robbery with two accomplices, shot Lois Houser three times with a handgun, chased her up a staircase and shot her once more as she huddled in a closet, then ripped the rings off her fingers.
Guzek was first sentenced to death in March of 1988, but the Oregon Supreme Court overturned the death sentence three times on procedural grounds, leading to a new trial each time over the years, at a cost to the state of millions of dollars.
After the governor's announcement, Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp (R-Bend) released the following statement:
“Did the people of Oregon vote to end the death penalty? I don’t recall that happening. This is another example of the Governor and the Democrats not abiding by the wishes of Oregonians. Even in the final days of her term, Brown continues to disrespect victims of the most violent crimes,” said Knopp.
Knopp said that Brown has used her executive authority to pardon or commute more sentences than any other governor in the state’s history and more than all of Oregon’s governors from the last 50 years combined.
Knopp's House counterpart, House Republican Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson (R-Prineville) also criticized Brown's action, taken just 27 days before the end of her term.
"Yet as has been her objective throughout her governorship, Governor Brown continues to, with the stroke of a pen, exercise a lack of responsible judgment," the statement began.
“Governor Brown has once again taken executive action with zero input from Oregonians and the legislature. Oregon has not executed an individual since 1997 and has only executed two criminals since voters adopted the death penalty in 1984,” said Breese-Iverson. “Her decisions do not consider the impact the victims and families will suffer in the months and years to come. Democrats have consistently chosen criminals over victims.”
Breese-Iverson's news release added, "Oregonians have been clear for decades that the death penalty is a constitutional punishment for our state’s most violent offenders. Time and again, the people of Oregon have supported this punishment as a deterrence and protection from those who have no regard for the lives of others."
Former Deschutes County prosecutor and retired Clatsop County DA Josh Marquis said the governor misspoke in her announcement, when it came to Guzek's case, which he personally retried each time.
"I wish she could give him 'true life' (without parole), as the (exhibit attached to her executive order) claims, but she cannot," he told NewsChannel 21.
Marquis said Senate Bill 1013, passed in 2019, narrowed what crimes qualify as aggravated murder -- and said that law change "already took Guzek off death row, and the only question is when his parole hearing will be."
He pointed to last year's Oregon Supreme Court ruling that struck down one inmate's death sentence and which experts said could eliminate the death sentence for all inmates facing the penalty.
In Brown's first news conference after becoming governor in 2015, she announced she would continue the death penalty moratorium imposed by her predecessor, former Gov. John Kitzhaber.
So far, 17 people have been executed in the U.S. in 2022, all by lethal injection and all in Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, Missouri and Alabama, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Like Oregon, some other states are moving away from the death penalty.
In California, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed a moratorium on executions in 2019 and shut down the state’s execution chamber at San Quentin. A year ago, he moved to dismantle America's largest death row by moving all condemned inmates to other prisons within two years.
In Oregon, Brown is known for exercising her authority to grant clemency.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Brown granted clemency to nearly 1,000 people convicted of crimes. Two district attorneys, along with family members of crime victims, sued the governor and other state officials to stop the clemency actions. But the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled in August that she acted within her authority.
The prosecutors, in particular, objected to Brown’s decision to allow 73 people convicted of murder, assault, rape and manslaughter while they were younger than 18 to apply for early release.
The Oregon Department of Corrections announced in May 2020 it was phasing out its death row and reassigning those inmates to other special housing units or general population units at the state penitentiary in Salem and other state prisons.
Oregon voters reinstated the death penalty by popular vote in 1978, 14 years after they abolished it. The Oregon Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 1981 and Oregon voters reinstated it in 1984, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
A list of inmates with death sentences provided by the governor's office had 17 names.
But the state Department of Corrections' website lists 21 names. One of those prisoners, however, had his death sentence overturned by the Oregon Supreme Court in 2021 because the crime he committed was no longer eligible for the death penalty under a 2019 law.
Officials in the governor's office and the corrections department did not immediately respond to an attempt to reconcile the lists.