11/28/2011 10:23 am ET Updated Jan 28, 2012

Two Volunteers for Execution, Two Governors Who Would Not Let Them Die

While abolitionists cheered the news that Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber had declared a moratorium on executions last week, the public reacted with surprise. Oregon has the death penalty?

Indeed, only two Oregonians have been executed in the last 27 years. (Texas killed two in the last month alone.) But Gary Haugen, 49, was scheduled to die on Dec. 6 -- until Democratic Gov. Kitzhaber decided that two was enough. "I refuse to be part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer," he declared, calling the system "broken."

Good for the governor. The former emergency room physician saved a life and laid the groundwork for Oregon to become the seventeenth state to abolish capital punishment.

Still, why would the governor choose Gary Haugen to make the case for a moratorium? Haugen is not, after all, the sort to attract much sympathy.

Unlike Anthony Porter, an innocent man whose brush with execution inspired Illinois Gov. George Ryan's moratorium a decade ago, Haugen is guilty as sin. He raped and murdered the mother of his ex-girlfriend in 1981. Twelve years later, he brutally killed a fellow prisoner, the type of crime death penalty proponents use to justify society's ultimate punishment. (Funny how the law-and-order crowd cares deeply about the safety of prisoners.) A shrink concluded that Haugen is delusional and suffers from uncontrolled seizures and bouts of rage, making him about as endearing as a rabid dog.

But the kicker is that Haugen had let the governor off the hook. Known in death penalty circles as a "volunteer," Haugen had waived his appeals and said he was ready to die. He opposed the death penalty, but was tired of the endless legal bickering and unsuitable living conditions, especially the fatty food and "mind-numbing" boredom. "It kills your spirit," he complained.

Haugen was the third volunteer this year. (The others, condemned in Alabama and South Carolina, quickly got their wish.) Yet Gov. Kitzhaber, who had presided over two previous executions of volunteers, picked Haugen to live and called on the Oregon legislature to consider alternatives to capital punishment.

In musing about Haugen as an improbable catalyst for change, I was reminded of a similar situation here in Illinois. In 2003, while Republican Gov. Ryan contemplated the fate of the 167 prisoners on death row, one case particularly stood out. It was personal for the governor.

A lowlife named Danny Edwards had kidnapped a close friend of the Ryan family, businessman Stephen Small, and buried him alive until Small's loved ones could deliver a ransom. The air holes failed, Small suffocated, and Edwards was caught. He landed on Death Row.

On Gov. Ryan's last week in office, after heated debate over how many death row inmates should receive clemency, he commuted everyone's sentences to life in prison or less. The governor made his announcement at Northwestern University, and afterward I asked him if he'd struggled over sparing Danny Edwards.

"It was a bitter pill," the governor nodded, and not only because Edwards' murder victim had been the Ryan's neighbor and babysitter. "Danny wrote me a while back saying he wanted to die," Ryan explained. "He begged me to allow his execution to go forward." The governor simply could have removed Edwards' name from the commutation list, an option endorsed by Ryan's wife. "But it would have been wrong," he said.

The reason: "I concluded that the system was completely broken, so it wouldn't have been fair to choose between who lived and who died. Especially for personal reasons." Thus, Edwards -- a volunteer for death -- lived to become part of a seminal moment in the history of capital punishment.

Like Gary Haugen, Danny Edwards had done everything possible to challenge the Illinois governor's moral stance, and the governor did what was right -- in spite of him.

I've read that Oregon's Gov. Kitzhaber has come under fire for his decision. That is as troubling as it is expected. Our country cries out for moral leadership, yet we trash officials with a moral vision that is not predictably popular.

Few would have cared if Gary Haugen died next week, including Gary Haugen. He would have been briefly known as the first person to be executed in Oregon since 1996, and the last person to be executed in the U. S. in 2011.

Now he will be briefly known as the killer who tested the moral courage of an obscure governor -- who will be long remembered for acing the test.