Advocates against death penalty to receive Salem Peacemaker Award at Wednesday lecture

Ron Steiner was volunteering at a home for former prisoners in New Mexico transitioning back into their communities when he heard a statistic that changed the course of his life.

A Catholic nun speaking at a fundraiser in the 1980s told the hundreds in attendance that fewer than 2% of all aggravated murder cases result in the death penalty. The majority of people being sentenced to death, she said, were those in poverty and people of color.

“That’s not fair,” Steiner exclaimed from his seat. He joined a statewide committee the following day dedicated to abolishing capital punishment, according to a recent biographical memo.

On Wednesday, Oct. 18, Steiner will receive Salem’s annual Peacemaker Award along with former Oregon State Penitentiary Superintendent Frank Thompson, both for their work seeking to end the death penalty in Oregon.

The awards will be part of the 34th annual Peace Lecture, held at Willamette University’s Hudson Hall in the Rodgers Music Center at 7:30 p.m.. The lecture is free and open to the public.

The keynote speaker will be Dr. Liz Theoharis, a theologian and anti-poverty activist who leads the Poor People’s Campaign.

Theoharis’ speech is entitled “Peace, Peace When There Is No Peace: Addressing Poverty, Racism and Militarism From the Ground Up.”

The event is organized by the Peace Lecture Committee, a group of around eight people dedicated to putting on the event each year.

Committee member Peter Bergel said one of their missions is to let people know that the topic of peace is much broader than the absence of war.

The lecture has covered a variety of topics over the years including prevention of nuclear war, Indigenous people’s rights and the connection between climate change and peace issues. 

“When we were doing our planning, there was a lot of racial unrest, and we were thinking that it would be very important to talk about the burgeoning military budget,” Bergel told Salem Reporter.

Historically at the Peace Lecture, there has not been a direct connection between the speaker’s theme and the recipients of the Peacemaker award, he said.

When the names of Steiner and Thomson came up in a committee meeting about who should receive this year’s award, “We all sort of looked at each other and said, ‘Well, yeah,’” according to Bergel.

Steiner was working in the 1980s as a national marketing consultant to television networks when he began volunteering – cooking meals for men released to the transition house in Albuquerque, according to an event biography.

After moving to Oregon, he led Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Steiner and his wife, Caren Ann, live in south Salem, where they work for nonprofits and political campaigns. “He enjoys talking about his grandchildren, who seem to have inherited his passion for justice and peacemaking,” according to the biography.

“I was quite honored, very surprised,” Steiner said of receiving the award. “I’ve been doing this kind of work for 20-some years, and I don’t hope for any handouts for it. But it’s been wonderful work, and we need the publicity to get rid of the death penalty.”

In 2019, then-Gov. Kate Brown signed Senate Bill 1013 into law, which limited the death penalty to those convicted of murdering a law enforcement officer or a child younger than 14, killing at least two people in a terrorist attack or killing someone in prison while serving time for a murder conviction.

Thompson was raised in segregated Arkansas during the Jim Crow era, “with Ku Klux Klan violence and the birth of the Civil Rights movement all around him,” according to his biography for the event. 

He served in the U.S. Army before a career in law enforcement, during which two state police officers he was close with were killed on the job. He believed the death penalty was a fitting punishment for certain crimes due to the cycle of violence against Black people as well as his Christian upbringing, the biography said.

Thompson was hired in 1994 by the Oregon Department of Corrections, where he served as superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary and oversaw the state’s only two executions in the past 50 years. The experience transformed him into a national anti-death penalty advocate.

“After carrying out my duties, I experienced a heavy residue of sadness, resentment and guilt for my role in those executions,” he wrote in the biography. “I wasn’t alone; members of my team put in for transfers, or quit corrections work altogether in an attempt to outrun the horror of having participated in murder. Working with (Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty) has helped to lighten that trauma considerably. I have met dozens of family members who lost loved ones by violent crimes, and I’ve learned a lot about forgiveness from these people, who became abolitionists as a way to ease their desire for revenge.”

He has since written and spoken extensively about bringing an end to capital punishment. “His advocacy work in Oregon, as well as his frequent testimony to legislators in other states has contributed significantly to ending the death penalty in the U.S.,” according to the biography.

Thompson and his wife, Deborah, live in south Salem. 

In his memo, he thanked Steiner for his leadership and their close friendship. Steiner also praised Thompson’s abolition work, describing him as an “outstanding guy.” 

Steiner said it is important for people to know that everybody can be a peacemaker.

“If they see an injustice, they should speak about it,” he said. If you don’t speak about it, you become complicit.”

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.