Oregon State Capitol

Here's a postscript of sorts to the uproar over Senate Bill 1013, the bill passed by the Legislature this session that dramatically narrowed the use of the death penalty in Oregon.

You recall the bill: This is the one that, rather ingeniously, limited the number of crimes that can be punished in Oregon by death. Under Oregon law, only the crime of "aggravated murder" can result in a death sentence. SB 1013 simply reduced the number of crimes that qualify as aggravated murder.

Under the terms of the bill, aggravated murder can only be charged in cases in which a defendant kills two or more people as an act of organized terrorism; kills a child younger than 14 intentionally and with premeditation; kills another person while incarcerated for a previous aggravated murder; or kills a law enforcement officer. Other crimes that used to be included on the list of aggravated murder are now classified as "first-degree murder," and the maximum penalty for those is life imprisonment without parole. Because the bill did not call for the death penalty to be abolished outright, it did not require a constitutional amendment, and therefore did not require a public vote.

One of the questions that came up during debate on the bill was whether it would apply to the 30 inmates on Oregon's death row. Legislators generally heard that the answer was "no," that the measure would not be retroactive. The bill passed the Legislature. Gov. Kate Brown signed it.

But after Brown signed the bill, legal analysts concluded that it could apply to death row cases which were returned to lower courts for retrial or new sentencing hearings — and since not one of the state's 30 cases has exhausted all its appeals, the law presumably could affect all of them.

Sen. Floyd Prozanski, the Eugene Democrat who was a key supporter of the bill, said that wasn't his intention, and set off to craft a narrow fix, one that would make it clear that it applied only to crimes committed after Sept. 29 of this year. But for whatever reasons, support for the special session faded and Brown declined to call legislators into session, citing what she said was a lack of support for the fix. The bill went into effect at the end of last month.

But now a poll from the state organization Crime Victims United concludes that there might have been more support for the fix than Brown suggested. In a press release, the organization (which supported fixing the bill) said it polled all 90 members of the Legislature. Only about half of the members responded; 17 of 30 senators responded, as did 26 of the 60 representatives. But here's the bottom line: The lawmakers who did respond all said they supported the legislative fix.

Seventeen votes in the Senate, of course, makes a majority. Twenty-six members of the House is just shy of a majority, but it seems unlikely that all 34 remaining representatives would have voted against the fix. Any way you slice these numbers, it looks like there would have been at least considerable sentiment for Prozanski's suggested fix.

In any event, it seems to be a good bet that this issue will come up again in the short legislative session scheduled for February. It's a hole that the Legislature should fix.

The Legislature should take the next step as well: Instead of concocting ingenious end runs around the state's voters, lawmakers should call the question and refer a ballot measure on the death penalty to voters. It's been nearly four decades since Oregon voters last reaffirmed the death penalty, and there's reason to think that attitudes toward capital punishment have changed. But there's only way to know for sure: Let the voters speak. (mm)

Correction

An editorial earlier this week about Linn County's $1.4 billion lawsuit against the state of Oregon over timber policy misstated the year when the state approved a new management plan for its forests. The year was 1998. (mm)

 

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