Danny Hellman
In the last week, the local FBI has received more than 300 phone calls reporting sightings of the 37-year-old Edward Morris, who stands accused of murdering his wife and three children and tossing their bodies in the snowy hills that flank Tillamook. The calls have reported Morris as far north as Seattle and all the way down into Mexico. There is an eerie familiarity to the manhunt, as if it was mimeographed from Christian Longo's police reports. This past summer, Longo allegedly murdered his wife and four children, dumped the bodies in the Newport Bay and took off to hide in Mexico.

Currently, Longo is awaiting trial scheduled for early this year. The case against him seems airtight. So much so that his lawyers are already looking past the trial and at the sentencing phase--that is, they're scrambling to avoid a death penalty conviction.

Likewise, if Morris is found alive, and if law enforcement hunches are correct, it's likely he will face a similar fate as Longo: a venomous criminal trial and a death penalty sentence.

These two cases, along with the pending capital case against Ward Weaver, coupled with a new governor set to take office in January, are setting up a thorny dilemma for Oregon: How to deal with the death penalty. (The last execution in the state was in 1997.) At a time when other states (excluding Texas and Florida) are shying away from capital punishment, Oregon is left in the unique position as being a hold-out for the death penalty.

Over the past year, governors in states traditionally supporting capital punishment have publicly admonished the death penalty. In Illinois, where more than 100 men are currently housed on death row, Governor George Ryan ordered that no more executions take place. Much of that détente has been motivated from efforts by the University of Chicago, where a law school class has helped uncover DNA evidence that has exonerated 19 men on death row.

But the climate in Oregon is much different. Public sympathies remain cozy with tough-on-crime sentiments. A ballot measure to roll back Measure 11's mandatory sentencing guidelines failed miserably two years ago. During that same election, a voter initiative to repeal the death penalty failed to gather enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, even with support from the widely popular former senator Mark Hatfield. In fact, little, if any, organized opposition to capital punishment exists in Oregon. While the University of Chicago law school has led the crusade in Illinois, not one of the three law schools in Oregon has any such organized movement.

Moreover, both the Longo and Morris cases are hardly likely to illicit public sympathy or any momentum against death penalty sentences.

Although most pundits have indicated that Oregon's sour economy will be Kulongoski's most tricky political minefield to navigate (to tax or not to tax), the death penalty issue could very well sneak onto center stage for the incoming governor. Currently, 25 men are in Salem's penitentiary awaiting lethal injection. Six of these men have been on death row more than a decade, including Marco Montez who was convicted of arson, three murders and abuse of a corpse; his execution could come as soon as this spring.

After winning the election by only a few thousand votes, Kulongoski's popularity is fragile. It leaves Kulongoski in a precarious position; a stand for or against the death penalty could easily alienate large groups in Oregon and leave Kulongoski as a governor opposed by the majority of his constituents.

As the attorney general and as a Supreme Court justice, Kulongoski has implemented the death penalty before. As governor, he holds even more power over capital punishment in the state, with the power to stay any execution. But although he stated his moral objection to capital punishment in gubernatorial debates against Kevin Mannix, he also claimed he would not stand in the way of an execution.

"I do not think this is an issue the state should take much pride in," he explained, leaving a good deal of doubt about exactly what he will do.