In late June, the Mercury brought Oregon's oldest politician together with its youngest to talk about the death penalty. Now retired, the 77-year-old politician returns to politics as the primary sponsor of voter initiative 66, a law that would replace the state's death penalty with life imprisonment without parole.
In 1962, during Hatfield's first term as Oregon's governor, Leroy Sanford McGahuey was put to death for a grisly double murder of a mother and her two-year old daughter. Two years later, Oregon voters repealed the death penalty. In 1978, Oregon voters followed a national trend and reinstated the death penalty by a vote of nearly two to one. In the last five years, two men have been put to death in Oregon by lethal injection.
JAKE: What do you say to parents who want to see their child's killer executed?
SEN. HATFIELD: It's almost like when a father and mother came up to me in '66 and told me their son was killed in Vietnam. They wanted to feel like their son hadn't died in vain. (Editor's note: Hatfield was one of the original US Senators to oppose the Vietnam War.) You can never successfully answer that question for people who have gone through such a trauma. But what I say is that the death sentence doesn't return the life. It's merely a sense of revenge. It gives them a feeling that the murderer hasn't gone unpunished, but for other people who have experienced this, it hasn't solved their grief. It hasn't brought that life back. Instead it takes two lives.
As Governor of Oregon, how did you resolve your legal charge versus your moral feelings about the death penalty?
Having been governor when we had an execution, I can tell you it still haunts me. However, when you swear to uphold the constitution of the State of Oregon you swear to uphold all of the laws--not just the laws you agree with. I felt there were too many examples in our history when people tortured the law or played around with it.
So if you were governor today, would you have commuted that death sentence?
I don't know. I would have to wrestle with that. We experienced the repeal of the death penalty when I was Governor. After the first execution, I had my press secretary have as many press people there to witness it as possible; reporting it in all its gory detail. By making it a broadly based experience for all people--by not having it at midnight--we were able to garner enough support to get it repealed. Even though there were executions scheduled to happen during the hiatus time between when the law was passed and the time it took effect, I immediately commuted all the sentences. I believe it was seven.
You're currently one of the chief petitioners for an initiative to replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole: Why would living an entire life in prison be any better than death?
It takes the state out of the execution role. I think executing people is dehumanizing. I start from a base of protecting the sanctity of life. I'm against capital punishment. I'm against war. And I'm against taking the life of a fetus, except when the life of the mother is threatened.
Even if this initiative makes it on the ballot, polling shows that the majority of Americans support the death penalty--does it stand a chance?
I think it's possible. It's not the same type of thing that whips up emotions like the anti-war issue. You have to think inwardly about it. There are enough votes out there to kill it. But those who are going to think about it and reflect are going to vote.