The U.S. state of Oregon has the death penalty on the books, but hasn’t employed it on a non-consenting prisoner since August 20, 1962.
That was the date that former logger LeRoy Sanford McGahuey, with a shrug of his broad shoulders and the sanguine parting observation “That’s it,” paid in the gas chamber for the 1961 hammer slayings of his girlfriend and her son.* (He’s also the last of seventeen people executed by lethal gas in Oregon history.)
The late Oregon political lion Mark Hatfield, who was governor at the time, permitted the execution to go ahead despite misgivings about capital punishment. It was the only time he would ever be called upon to shoulder that burden: Oregon repealed its capital statutes in 1964 during the nationwide death penalty drawdown; Hatfield had moved on to the U.S. Senate by the time voters reinstated capital punishment in 1978. In an interview almost 40 years after the fact, Hatfield said that being party to McGahuey’s death still troubled him.
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based experience for all people — by not having it at midnight — we were able to garner enough support to get it repealed.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. [actually, it was three -ed.]
Oregon currently retains the death penalty but has had a moratorium on executions enforced by its governors since 2011. Its only “modern” (post-1976) executions were in 1996 and 1997, and both were inflicted on men who voluntarily abandoned their own appeals to speed their path to the executioner.
* Technically, McGahuey was executed for the murder of the child, 22-month old Rodney Holt: he’d slain the mother, 32-year-old Loris Mae Holt, in a fit of passion, but he followed up by bludgeoning the tot with premeditation out of (as he said) concern for the boy’s upbringing now that he’d been orphaned.