Text Size:   A+ A- A   •   Text Only
Find     
Site Image

History of Capital Punishment in Oregon
Brief Oregon History
Capital punishment in Oregon has a history almost as long as the state is old. The death penalty became law four times in Oregon's history. It was voted out twice and struck down by the Oregon Supreme Court once. Executions, although an infrequent, minor part of corrections in Oregon, pique the public's interest and hopefully will always remain a source of controversy, passion and discourse.
 
An enourmous amount of attention was focused on the Department of Corrections and the issue of capital punishment in 1996. On Friday, September 6, 1996, Inmate Douglas Franklin Wright, 56, became the first person executed by lethal injection in Oregon. With promises of jobs, the convicted murderer lured five homeless men to the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in 1991 and shot four of them in cold blood. The fifth man escaped and alerted police. Wright was convicted on October 6, 1993 of eight counts of aggravated murder, among other crimes, for three of the murders. In the days leading up to his execution he confessed to an additional kidnapping and murder in 1984, that of a ten-year-old boy.
 
In all, 58 murderers preceded Douglas Franklin Wright into Oregon's history books, the most recent being in 1962, almost exactly 34 years later.

1864 - 1964
Picture of Gas Chamber
Initially, the Oregon Constitution contained no provision for the death penalty.(1) The death penalty for first degree murder was adopted by statute in 1864.(2)
 
Between 1864 and 1903, authority to carry out executions was vested in the county sheriffs. In 1903 the Oregon Legislature, in order to restrict public attendance at executions, amended the law to require executions be carried out at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.
 
On Jan. 29, 1904, H.D. Egbert became the first man to be hanged at the Oregon State Penitentiary under the law. Egbert was a white, 26-year-old male Teamster, originally from Iowa, convicted of murder in Harney County.
 
Between 1904 and 1914, 24 men were hanged at the penitentiary. On Dec. 13, 1912, four men were executed on the same day, the most at one time at the penitentiary. There have been seven executions of two people on the same day, including two brothers, George and Charles Humphery, ages 52 and 39 respectively, executed on March 22, 1913.
 
In 1914, Oregon voters, by constitutional amendment, repealed the death penalty with just 50.04 percent of the vote. That amendment became Article I, 36 of the Oregon Constitution.
In 1920, voters restored the death penalty by repealing Article I, 36 and approving Article I, 37-38, with 56 percent of the vote.
 
On Nov. 5, 1920, Emmet Bancroft became the first to be hanged since re-enactment of the death penalty. Bancroft, a white, 25-year-old farmer from Missouri, was convicted of murdering the Umatilla sheriff during a jail break. Bancroft's two accomplices were both executed on July 7, 1922.
 
Fifteen hangings followed Bancroft's, the last being James E. Kingsley on Oct. 30, 1931. Kingsley was a white, 24-year-old laborer from Washington, convicted of murdering a police officer in Jackson County. During that time period, two death-row inmates committed suicide. Also executed during that time period was L.W. Peare, convicted of murdering his wife and another man during a moonshine drinking spree, and who at age 67 became the oldest man ever executed in Oregon.
 
After the Kingsley execution, the state stopped using the gallows and began using lethal gas. The first man to be executed in the gas chamber was LeRoy Hershel McCarthy, a white 27-year-old laborer, convicted of murdering a hold-up victim in Multnomah County.
Seventeen gas-chamber executions followed, including John Anthony Soto, convicted of murdering two men and one woman in Umatilla County, and who at age 17 became the youngest person ever executed in Oregon.
 
On August 20, 1962 the last execution in Oregon took place. Leeroy Sanford McGahuey, a 40-year-old logger, was convicted of brutally murdering a 32-year-old woman and her two-year-old son.
 
On Nov. 3, 1964, Oregon voters repealed the death penalty by 60 percent of the vote. On Nov. 5, 1964, then-Gov. Mark O. Hatfield (R) commuted the death sentences of three people, including the only woman ever to be sentenced to death in Oregon. Jeannace Freeman, a 20-year-old white waitress was convicted of murdering her female lover's young son by throwing him off the bridge in Jefferson County.

1978 - 1996
The repeal remained in effect until 1978, when Oregon voters approved Ballot Measure 8, re-instituting capital punishment by lethal gas. Unlike prior death penalty laws, Measure 8 did not amend the Oregon Constitution, but rather was incorporated into the Oregon Revised Statutes, amending ORS 163.115 and creating ORS 163.116.(3) Measure 8 won 64 percent of the vote.
 
Under the death penalty statute the sentence was determined by the trial judge, without a jury. In 1981, the Oregon Supreme Court struck down the death penalty statute because it deprived the defendant of his right to trial by jury.(4)
 
In 1984, Oregon voters approved Ballot Measure 6 (1984) which created Article I, 40 and exempted capital punishment from Article I, 15-16 of the Oregon Constitution.(5) The measure passed with 55 percent of the vote.
 
Ballot Measure 7 (1984) amended ORS 163.150 to require that, following a conviction for aggravated murder, a defendant be given a separate sentencing hearing before the trial jury. The measure passed with 75 percent of the vote.
 
Aggravated murder is defined by ORS 163.095. In general, murder becomes aggravated murder if: it was a murder for hire; there was more than one victim; torture was involved; the victim was a criminal justice professional, a juror or a witness; the defendant was in custody or a fugitive when the murder occurred; the defendant previously committed murder or manslaughter; the murder occurred during another felony act; the murder was committed to conceal a crime; or the murder was committed using explosives.
 
At the sentencing hearing, the jury would determine whether: 1. The murder was deliberate; 2. Whether the defendant posed a continuing threat to society; and 3. Whether the defendant's acts were unreasonable in response to any provocation by the deceased.
 
Sentencing options available to juries for aggravated murder under ORS 163.105 are 1.Death; 2. Life without the possibility of parole ("true life"); and 3. Life imprisonment with a 30-year minimum.

Resentencing Under Penry
In 1988, the United States Supreme Court reversed a Texas death penalty sentence as violating the Eighth Amendment (Penry v. Lynaugh). The decision's impact on the Oregon law was significant because that law was based upon the Texas law.
 
"...in capital cases the fundamental respect for humanity underlying the Eighth Amendment ... requires consideration of the character and record of the individual offender and the circumstances of the particular offense as a constitutionally indispensable part of the process of inflicting the penalty of death."(6)
 
A fourth question concerning mitigating evidence was added by the 1989 Legislature following the Supreme Court decision.(7) The court suggested the mitigation question might be worded as follows: "Should defendant receive a death sentence? You should answer this question 'no' if you find that there is any aspect of defendant's character or background, or any circumstances of the offense, that you believe would justify a sentence less than death."(8)
 
Following Penry, 17 Oregon cases were remanded for resentencing only. Of those, five received life with a 30-year minimum, four received Life without possibility of release or parole (True Life) and eight were resentenced to death.
 
In all, between 1904 and 1994, 115 people have been sentenced to death in Oregon, and 58 of those have been executed. The rest have had their sentences reduced, dismissed, commuted or have died in prison. Of the 58, 55 were white and three black. Their ages ranged from age 17 to 67.

The Appeals Process
Picture of Douglas Wright
Following a sentence of death, the sentence is automatically appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court. From there, the defendant may appeal to the US Supreme Court, but the appeal is at the discretion of the court and may not be heard.
 
Post-conviction appeals are then taken to circuit court in which the defendant was sentenced, the Oregon Court of Appeals, the Oregon Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court, in that order.
 
After that line of appeals has been followed, the defendant may appeal in Federal District Court, the 9 th thCircuit Court of Appeals and the US Supreme Court, in that order.
 
There may also be state and federal stays that require further litigation.
 
Between 1984 and 1990, the Oregon Department of Justice litigated 24 death penalty cases, using 14,368.4 hours at a cost of $794,004.80.

Executions Since 1984
Douglas Franklin Wright´s execution was Oregon´s first execution in 34 years. It cost Oregon taxpayers nearly $200,000. Although Wright chose not to pursue any of the legal appeals available to him, approximately $90,000 was expended on legal fees to fend off third-party law suits, and $85,000 for staff overtime for training and security duties. The average cost-per-day to incarcerate an inmate in Oregon in 1996 was $53.73.
 
Harry Charles Moore was the second inmate to be executed in recent times. He, too, chose not to pursue his appeals. Moore died at 12:23 a.m. on May 16, 1997.

Notations
1 State v. Quinn, 290 Or. 383, 623 P.2d. 630 (1981), citing C. Carey, THE OREGON CONSTITUTION AND PROCEEDINGS AND DEBATES OF THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION OF 1857, 401,404, 448, 456 (1926).
 
2 Deady, GENERAL LAWS OF OREGON, 1843-1872, 516 (1874).
 
3 O.R.S. 163.116 (1978).
 
4 State v. Quinn, 290 Or. 383, 623 P.2d. 630 (1981).
 
5 Article I, 15 is the guiding force behind the Oregon judicial and correctional systems. In 1984 it read: "Laws for the punishment of crime shall be founded on the principles of reformation, and not of vindictive justice." It was amended in 1996 to read: "Laws for the punishment of crime shall be founded on these principles: protection of society, personal responsibility, accountability for one's actions, and reformation." Article I, 16 says in part, "Cruel and unusual punishments shall not be inflicted ..."
 
6 Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302, 316 (1988) (citing Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280, 304 (1976) (plurality opinion))
 
7 Id. (Citing Jurek v. Texas, 428 U.S. 262, 271 (1976)).
 
8 State v. Wagner, 309 Or. 5, 786 P.2d. 93,_ (1990).
 
©2000 Oregon Department of Corrections
2575 Center Street, NE
Salem, Oregon 97310
(503)945-0920


Reprinting permitted with attribution Rev. 3: 6-2000