Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on Thursday signed Senate Bill 1013, a bill that dramatically narrows who is eligible for the death penalty in this state. It was not the way to change Oregon’s death penalty law.
Oregon has not executed anyone in more than two decades. In 2011, then-Gov. John Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on the penalty. Brown continued that moratorium and the 2019 Legislature rewrote the definition of aggravated murder in SB 1013, the only crime subject to the death penalty in the state.
When the bill goes into effect near the end of September, only those convicted of killing two or more people during an act of terrorism, killing a child under 14, killing an inmate if the killer is in jail or prison or have a previous murder conviction, or killing a police, corrections or probation officer will be eligible for the penalty. The law does not eliminate the penalty for the 31 men and women currently on death row.
While this newspaper has long opposed the death penalty, the Legislature’s action was not the way to go about making dramatic changes to the current law. That’s because lawmakers declined to refer the measure to a vote of the people.
Yet historically, it’s the people, not lawmakers, who have made the death penalty available in Oregon, and it’s been the people who have removed it from the state’s punishment arsenal. True, lawmakers first put the penalty in place here in 1864, but citizen votes have repealed the law twice and restored it three times since. Once, the state Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.
Voters should have been given the final say this time. Lawmakers should have referred this change to the ballot. They should not have taken it upon themselves to undo law that the people put in place without giving those same people the right to approve or defeat their action in an election.