SALEM — A Catholic inmate on Oregon’s death row was transferred to the general prison population in January. A lay Catholic minister at Oregon State Penitentiary says Greg Bowen has been joining other inmates for Mass, something he could not do while he was isolated as a candidate for execution.
“The joy, peace and humble gratitude that showed on his face during the service spoke volumes about his deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ,” lay minister Laura Kazlas said after Bowen attended liturgy for the first time.
Bowen, 64, won a court appeal and is eligible for parole in 12 years. A new look at evidence changed his conviction from aggravated murder to felony murder, which carries a life sentence with possibility of parole. Bowen accepted the result, though he insists that he shot his friend Donald Christiansen of Brookings by mistake in 2001. Bowen did admit to stealing guns from Christiansen’s home, but says he did not mean to kill his friend.
Evidence showed that Christiansen was shot from closer than five feet, strengthening Bowen’s contention. Most murderers shoot victims from farther away.
“This is another reason why we are against the death penalty,” says Kazlas. “There is always the possibility that our government could execute an innocent man.” Since 1973, 158 prisoners have been exonerated from death row in U.S. prisons.
“We need to be in the prisons to support all of the inmates — but especially for the rare person who is incarcerated for a crime they didn’t commit,” Kazlas says.
Bowen is one of the men Archbishop Alexander Sample visited several times on death row. Bowen and 76 other Catholic inmates signed up for a retreat slated for April 4, but fighting in another population sparked a lockdown of the whole prison and the retreat was postponed.
Oregon has 34 inmates on death row, including two more awaiting new sentences. Voters approved the death penalty in 1984. Since then, 23 convicts have been resentenced, four have died while locked up and two were executed.