Ore. to close death row, reassign inmates to other housing

The 27 inmates will be moved to general population or special housing somewhere in the state's prison system


By Noelle Crombie
The Oregonian

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Oregon Department of Corrections is expected to announce Friday that it will close death row and reassign the 27 men who live there to other housing in the state prison system.

The agency has considered the move since 2016, when a prominent prison reform group recommended that the unit be emptied to lessen the potential psychological harms associated segregated prison housing.

Jennifer Black, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, confirmed the plan late Thursday but declined further comment.

The men will be moved to the general population or “special housing” somewhere in the state’s prison system either because they are a danger to others or they themselves are vulnerable in part because of the crimes they committed, according to a source briefed on the plan but not authorized to speak on behalf of the agency.

Death row is located in a far corner of the penitentiary grounds. During a tour of the unit earlier this year, most of the men were in their cells; the unit was quiet. Adjacent to death row lies the death chamber, a mothballed space that has not seen an execution since 1997. The state has had a moratorium on executions since 2011.

Some of the most notorious criminals in Oregon’s modern history reside on death row, some for decades: Dayton Leroy Rogers, 66, considered Oregon’s most prolific serial killer; Jesse Compton, 43, whose rape and murder of a 3-year-old Springfield girl in 1997 led to the adoption of tougher child abuse reporting laws; and Christian Longo, 46, who was on the FBI’s Most Wanted List for the 2001 killing of his wife and three young children in 2001.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a national research and policy nonprofit based in New York City, four years ago issued a report on Oregon’s prison system, recommending that death row be closed.

This week, Elena Vanko, a senior program associate with the group, said Oregon’s decision to dismantle the unit is part of a national trend away from capital punishment.

Death row, she said, is a form of solitary confinement where inmates don’t get access to programming like their counterparts in general population. Decisions about where a prisoner lives should be made on their conduct in prison, not their sentence, she said.

“The idea is to treat these people with death sentences the same in that sense,” she said.

Jesse Merrithew, who represents two men on death row, said his clients were given a heads-up through “very unofficial channels” that change is coming.

“No details, no timing as to where they are going,” he said. The two are Jason Brumwell, convicted in the 2003 murder of a fellow inmate, and Bruce Turnidge, who along with his son, Joshua Turnidge, was convicted a decade ago in the Woodburn bank bombing.

Paige Clarkson, Marion County district attorney, said she was not briefed on the specifics of the plan but late Thursday said she opposed shifting men like the Turnidges off death row. She said prosecutors in her office seek the death penalty not only because some defendants pose a danger to the public, they also are dangerous inside of prison, too.

“When we are talking about seeking the death penalty on the worst of the worst, those folks are a threat both inside and outside,” she said.

“They are not just dangerous in the community because they killed police officers,” she said. “They are dangerous inside the facility because their ideology is dangerous. And they can have contact with other inmates and influence them.”

Sue Shirley -- whose parents Rod and Lois Houser were killed by Randy Guzek in 1987 in their Terrebonne home -- said she strongly opposed the move.

“Four juries – 48 jurors have agreed that that is the appropriate sentence and what is the motivation now?” Shirley said. “They have the distinction of being death row inmates. Why are they removing that disposition?”

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©2020 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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