Ore. governor signs bill limiting use of death penalty
It’s been 22 years since Oregon executed anyone
By Noelle Crombie
The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.
SALEM, Ore. — Gov. Kate Brown on Thursday signed a bill that represents the first major legislative restriction to Oregon’s death penalty since 1984, when voters amended the constitution to include capital punishment.
“Our state’s criminal justice system continues to impose death sentences, and send people to death row, even as we know that no one has been executed here in a generation,” said Brown, according to prepared remarks released by her office.
Brown signed Senate Bill 1013 at her ceremonial office at the Oregon State Capitol, where according to her remarks, she called the state’s death penalty dysfunctional, costly and immoral.
Unlike the signing of a major juvenile justice bill last month, the event was closed to the media. The governor’s staff did not issue a news release in advance of the signing as it has done with other legislation, including an event scheduled for Friday at which she plans to sign bill that ensures ballot return envelopes will include pre-paid postage.
It’s been 22 years since Oregon executed anyone. In the past five decades, the state executed two men, both in the 1990s. They had essentially volunteered for the death penalty after waiving their rights to appeal before their deaths.
Currently 31 people are sentenced to death in Oregon, according to the Oregon Department of Corrections.
In 2015, Brown extended a moratorium imposed on the death penalty in 2011 by then-Gov. John Kitzhaber. Kitzhaber argued that the death penalty isn’t handed down fairly: Some inmates on death row have committed similar crimes as those who are serving life sentences. He said capital punishment should be replaced with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
Advocates applauded Oregon’s policy shift, which narrows the crimes eligible for the death penalty.
“I am thoroughly convinced that our current system is unworkable and crazy, and that this is a responsible, carefully crafted, compromise measure,” said Steve Kanter, a retired law professor and dean emeritus at Lewis & Clark Law School who testified in favor of the bill. “It’s law-making the way it’s supposed to be done.”
The law narrows the definition of aggravated murder, which is the only crime in Oregon eligible for a death sentence. Under the new law, aggravated murder is limited to defendants who kill two or more people as an act of organized terrorism; intentionally and with premediation kill a child younger than 14; kill another person while locked up in jail or prison for a previous murder; or kill a police, correctional or probation officer.
Oregon joins Arizona in narrowing its aggravated murder statute this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit that serves as a national clearinghouse for analysis and information about capital punishment.
Robert Dunham, the organization’s executive director, said 29 states, including Oregon, have the death penalty. Four of them, like Oregon, have imposed a moratorium.
“The death penalty has been disappearing from vast parts of the country,” he said. “There is nobody left in New England with the death penalty. In the West, the death penalty is eroding.”
In the past 15 years, nine states have abolished the death penalty, said Dunham.
Beginning around 2001, the number of people sent to death row around the country began to drop, he said. He added that 2019 is on track to see fewer than 50 people sentenced to death nationwide for the fifth consecutive year.
Executions also have declined from 98 nationally in 1999 to fewer than 30 in each of the last four years.
At the same time, said Dunham, public sentiment is shifting. Gallup polling shows 80 percent of Americans supported the death penalty in 1994; 56 percent supported it in a poll conducted last year.
Only voters can repeal or abolish Oregon’s death penalty since it’s in the state constitution. The Legislature, however, can make changes to which crimes are eligible for capital punishment.
Dunham said while Arizona “was tinkering around the edges” of its death penalty law, Oregon “essentially tore down its death penalty law and rebuilt it from the bottom up.”
“It was a massive overhaul,” he said.
Prosecutors, some of whom testified against the bill, on Thursday said the changes throw Oregon’s most serious cases into upheaval, likely leading to years of litigation and appeals.
“This notion that we are saving money is a false promise,” said Patty Perlow, district attorney in Lane County. Perlow had urged lawmakers to refer the policy change to voters. “All of these things are going to have to be litigated.”
Katie Suver, a veteran deputy district attorney in Marion County, said the new law dusts off the concept of a premeditated crime, which had been removed from the criminal code in 1971. The new definition of aggravated murder includes the premeditated and intentional murder of a victim under age 14.
Suver said she suspects it was added to make it even more difficult to apply to cases involving child killings.
“Why would it make any difference in terms of danger to the community that somebody planned it for 10 minutes versus 10 years?” she asked.
The Oregon Justice Resource Center, which has lobbied for reforms to the state’s criminal justice system and opposes the death penalty, has previously called on Brown to commute the sentences of convicts on death row and give them life without parole.
On Thursday, Alice Lundell, a spokeswoman for the organization, said the group will renew those calls for Brown to act.
Lundell said Brown should send a message to about the recent decision to resume federal executions. According to her written remarks, Brown acknowledged that shift, saying “many of us grieved last week’s announcement that the federal government will begin executions again.”
Said Lundell: “This is potentially a moment for Oregon and for Kate Brown to stand up against that type of politicizing of the death penalty that is happening at the federal level. It could be a huge statement for her to make if she were to address the problems with Oregon’s death penalty by using her constitutional powers to commute the row.”
Asked if the governor is considering such a move, her spokeswoman Kate Kondayen responded via email saying only “there are no pending commutation applications from the inmates currently on death row.“
©2019 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)
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