Just Crazy Enough to Die 

Is Gary Haugen Legally Crazy for Wanting Death over Prison?

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GARY HAUGEN wants to die.

By August 23, Haugen will have completed 1,573 days on death row and his 30th year in Oregon prison. On that day, he will undergo his second mental competency evaluation—a test to determine whether he mentally qualifies to be killed by the state.

Haugen says he would rather go through with the death penalty than live out his natural life behind bars. While most inmates attempt to push off their execution with appeal after appeal, Haugen has personally waived all right to future appeals and fired his state-appointed attorneys when they fought to stave off the execution day.

"They want me to rot in prison, and my wish is to be executed," he told Marion County Circuit Judge Jamese Rhoades during a hearing on July 14.

If he succeeds in dying, Haugen will be the first inmate to be put to death in the state in 14 years. His case highlights an unusual issue about the death penalty: Thanks to the eighth amendment of the US Constitution, states cannot apply the death penalty to people who are "mentally incompetent." But is a man who would rather die than live in prison mentally unsound?

The Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution protects against even sentencing people with an IQ of 70 or below to the death penalty. But mental competence is something different.

"Sanity is a much harder thing to define," says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, DC. "You could call me smart and insane."

To be "mentally competent," a prisoner must understand what is going on and why he or she is being executed. In Haugen's case, he understands that he will be executed—but there's a question of whether he understands the relationship between his execution and the crime for which he was sent to death row: his 2003 murder of fellow inmate David Polin.

To further confuse matters, Dieter explains there is often a correlation between mental illness and mental incompetence: "You could be incompetent now, you could be treated with medication and therapy and then you could be executed," he says.

Haugen already had one mental competency evaluation (with noted neuropsychologist Muriel Lezak), but her assessment was stricken from the record when Haugen fired his state-appointed attorneys, Andy Simrin and Keith Goody, this summer. That change also pushed back the date of Haugen's execution from July 28 to August 16, and now his death date hinges on the results of the mental competency hearing. Even after he fired them, Haugen's attorneys continued to argue that he is not mentally competent to undergo an execution.

Simrin and Goody wrote in a writ of mandamus that Haugen was delusional and unfit to be executed. The psychologist agreed.

"While Mr. Haugen has factual awareness of the crime he was convicted of and his impending execution and the state's reason for executing him, it is my opinion that Mr. Haugen suffers from a mental condition that prevents him from comprehending the reasons for his death sentence or its implication," wrote Lezak.

The high cost of maintaining death row and the hurdles to actually executing prisoners—even in the very unusual case that they clear the legal path to their death—raise the question of whether the state should even have the death penalty.

Since reinstating the death penalty in 1984, Oregon has only gone through with two executions. Both those inmates, like Haugen, waived their rights to further appeals. The appeals process for the 37 inmates currently on Oregon's death row is 10 steps long and can take as many as 20 years to complete.

"I don't think we, as a state, have a stomach for lots of executions," says Bill Long, author of A Tortured History: The Story of Capital Punishment in Oregon. "My read of Oregon's character is that Oregon likes the death penalty, but it doesn't like the notion of actually putting people to death."

"Death row is a more expensive place to keep a person," says Dieter. "The typical death row is single cell, but regular prison is two or more in a cell. Meals are brought to you, if you have a visitor two guards will be shackled to you. Everything takes more people power."

Currently, there are 16 states without the death penalty. Oregon has abolished and reinstated the death penalty twice in its history. Long thinks we're poised to abolish it again, pointing to statistics showing that when there are 10 or more states without the death penalty, Oregon usually follows suit.

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