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Oregon death row inmate cannot reject reprieve, court rules

By Teresa Carson

PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - A condemned murderer who tried to seek his own death warrant after Oregon's anti-death penalty governor stopped all executions in the state cannot reject that reprieve, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.

Democratic governor John Kitzhaber, in a major salvo in the nation's long-running battle over capital punishment, issued a blanket reprieve to all 36 prisoners on Oregon's death row in November 2011, saying he would allow no more executions on his watch because he believed the death penalty was morally wrong.

But Kitzhaber, a former emergency room physician, stopped short of permanently commuting the sentences, saying the state's law on capital punishment was not his alone to decide.

That move came just a month before the scheduled execution of Gary Haugen, who had been convicted in two brutal killings and who responded by suing to seek his own death warrant.

Haugen argued that he did not want to live in limbo under an indefinite and impermanent reprieve, and a lower court ruled he could reject the reprieve. But the state's highest court overturned that decision.

The opinion by Oregon Chief Justice Thomas Balmer found that "nothing inherent in the word 'reprieve' requires the recipient's acceptance for the reprieve to be effective."

The court, in a ruling welcomed by Kitzhaber, also rejected Haugen's argument that the temporary nature of the reprieve created uncertainty that constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

"I renew my call for a reevaluation of our current system that embraces capital punishment, which has devolved into an unworkable system that fails to meet the basic standards of justice," Kitzhaber said in a statement.

Oregon has executed only two people in the last 50 years, one in 1996 and one in 1997. Both were carried out in a prior Kitzhaber administration, which he has said was deeply troubling to him.

Six states - Connecticut, Illinois, New Mexico, New York, New Jersey and Maryland - have repealed the death penalty since 2007, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. A total of 18 U.S. states have ended the death penalty.

Haugen was convicted of killing his girlfriend's mother in 1981. He and another prisoner were later convicted of the 2003 killing of another inmate while Haugen was serving his sentence for the first murder.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Bernard Orr)

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