By Teresa Carson
PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - A condemned murderer, who was spared lethal injection when Oregon's anti-death penalty governor stopped all executions in the state last year, can reject that reprieve and seek his own death warrant, a judge ruled on Friday.
Senior Circuit Judge Timothy Alexander wrote that Gary Haugen, who has dropped all appeals and asked that his death sentence be carried out to avoid living in limbo under an indefinite but impermanent reprieve, was not required to accept the blanket stay.
The ruling was a blow to Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, who announced last November just weeks before Haugen was scheduled to be put to death that he would allow no more executions in Oregon on his watch because he believed the death penalty was morally wrong.
In announcing the moratorium, the governor stopped short of commuting the sentences of Oregon's 36 death row inmates to life in prison, saying the state's law on capital punishment was not his alone to decide.
Oregon has executed only two people in the last 49 years, one in 1996 and another in 1997, both carried out in a prior Kitzhaber administration.
Kitzhaber, whose November move marked a major salvo in the nation's long-running battle over capital punishment, had said he hoped the step would prompt the state legislature to revisit and possibly ban capital punishment.
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have no death penalty, and there has been a gradual trend away from capital punishment in the country, with the number of executions falling slightly in recent years.
"I conclude that Plaintiff (Haugen) has the right to reject Governor Kitzhaber's reprieve, and that absent that acceptance, a reprieve is ineffective," Alexander wrote in a seven-page opinion.
"The parties have agreed that the ruling in this case will control the next step in the criminal case, therefore as soon as this decision is final, a hearing will be set to establish an execution date in accordance with the statutes concerning sentencing in aggravated murder cases," the judge wrote.
The ruling comes after Haugen's attorneys sent a letter to Kitzhaber challenging the reprieve in March and filed papers in court seeking a new death warrant. They said Haugen did not want to be a pawn in the governor's campaign to repeal the death penalty.`=
The letter stopped short of saying Haugen, 50, wanted to die but said he no longer wanted live in legal limbo, uncertain of whether or when he might be put to death.
A spokeswoman for the governor said his attorneys would likely appeal. "We are confident that the governor's authority will be upheld," spokeswoman Amy Wojcicki said. Appeals were likely to mean that Haugen's execution would not be carried out anytime soon.
Alexander, in his written ruling, said he shared many of Kitzhaber's concerns about the death penalty and hoped "that the legislature will be receptive to modifying and improving Oregon laws regarding sentencing for Aggravated Murder."
But the judge said he had to "set aside his personal views" and decide the case based on the merits.
Haugen was convicted of killing his girlfriend's mother in 1981. He and another prisoner were both later convicted of murder for the 2003 killing of another inmate while Haugen was in prison for the first murder.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb, Cynthia Johnston and Sandra Maler)