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Image: Amy Martin

Ron Steiner, a fit 76-year-old with precisely combed hair, stood in front of a packed McMinnville church social hall one Saturday morning in May. Over scrambled eggs and pastries, Steiner launched a discussion about executions. Steiner is devoting his retirement to abolishing capital punishment here, volunteering 40–50 hours a week to run Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty—an unconventional twist for a man raised in Pennsylvania coal mining country who spent his working years in television marketing in New Mexico before “retiring” in Oregon.

In 2000, Steiner, who is Catholic, attended a talk by Sister Helen Prejean, the nun whose book Dead Man Walking made her arguably America’s most prominent death penalty opponent. “She hit me like a two-by-four,” Steiner recalls. He notes, in particular, the death penalty’s glaring racial imbalance in the US: African Americans, about 13 percent of the national population, account for 42 percent of death row inmates.

“Capital punishment is a flaw in our culture and our government,” Steiner says. “I have the ability, time, and energy to try to change things for the better.” He volunteered for the effort that abolished New Mexico’s death penalty in 2009. In Oregon he raises money, wrangles a 100-member advisory council, and lobbies lawmakers—all from his Salem home office, with no paid staff.

In this effort, Steiner and his allies find the state in a strange limbo. In 2011, Gov. John Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on executions, a policy his successor, Kate Brown, has so far continued. When Oregon does execute people, it prefers volunteers. The state’s last two executions, in 1996 and 1997, ended the lives of condemned killers who waived their appeals and asked to die. Oregon’s last involuntary execution was in 1962. The results can be surreal: Gary Haugen, a convicted two-time murderer, has waived his appeals and even sued Kitzhaber, demanding to be executed.

Eliminating a measure the state rarely employs might seem easy. However, Oregon’s constitution requires a popular vote to abolish the death penalty. (California has a similar provision.) So until the people vote, 34 men and one woman sit on death row in a state that doesn’t intend to execute anyone. Steiner and his organization plan to push a ballot measure when they see polls bending their direction. The issue could reach voters two ways: through petition (expensive), or legislative referral (politically arduous).

Even so, Steiner says that national momentum is in his favor. Each exoneration or botched lethal injection exposes the system’s flaws. Nebraska repealed its death penalty in May—a notable move for a state dominated by conservatives. Of the 31 states that have the death penalty on their books, four currently have some form of moratorium in place. But momentum can be fickle. “A really heinous murder, or a series of them, could slow it down,” Steiner says. “Factors like that are totally out of anybody’s control.”

Executing a killer can be—counterintuitively, perhaps—more expensive than locking them up for life. A multistep appeals process, paid for by Oregon taxpayers, must unfold before the state can execute someone. In the most notorious instance, Randy Lee Guzek, a convicted murderer sentenced to death by four juries in the past 27 years, is still on only the first step of his appeal, and his case has cost Oregon taxpayers almost $3 million so far.

Attorney Jeffrey Ellis specializes in capital cases and has defended Guzek. “Most everybody agrees that the death penalty is more expensive than life without parole,” Ellis says. “Exactly how much more expensive is difficult to get at.”

The arguments in favor of capital punishment tend to be more visceral. Andy Olson, a Republican state representative from Albany, served as a police officer for 29 years. That experience, he says, left him convinced that some criminals “should not breathe the same air that I do.” (Olson jokingly calls Steiner his “arch enemy,” but actually the two men get along well.)

“I honestly do think the voters got it right when they voted in support of this,” Olson says, referring to the 1984 ballot measure that restored capital punishment in Oregon following a state supreme court ruling against it. “Is it time to see exactly where they’re at with the current language? I think that’s the discussion we should have.”

Joshua Marquis, the district attorney for Clatsop County, has prosecuted Guzek three times and is a noted proponent of capital punishment. He worries that if Steiner and his allies succeed in abolishing the death penalty, they would turn to eliminating life without parole.

“It’s an evolving moral standard,” Marquis says. “The moment the death penalty comes off the table, next up is life without parole.”

Steiner, obviously, disagrees. “We’re not soft on crime,” he says. “Life without parole is adequate punishment.”

Portlander Rachel Saslow is a former staff writer for the Washington Post.

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