A potentially flawed law passed by the 2019 Legislature that limits application of the death penalty took effect Sunday without a fix, potentially allowing already convicted death-row inmates to avoid execution if they are retried or resentenced after appeals. That’s not what the Legislature intended, and it’s unfortunate that lawmakers could not agree to amend the bill in a special session. Ultimately, Oregon voters should be asked to revisit the death penalty for all cases.
Gov. Kate Brown had said she would call a special session to amend the bill if lawmakers could agree on a fix that could be enacted in a single day. Bill supporter Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, said he had agreement in the Senate, but House leaders could not line up enough votes.
Abolishing the death penalty entirely would require a vote of the people. Oregon voters reinstated capital punishment by constitutional amendment in 1984 after the state Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.
In 2011, Gov. John Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on executions, and Brown continued it. Only two people have been executed in Oregon in the past 50 years, and both of those defendants withdrew all appeals and asked that their death sentences be carried out. As of Jan. 1, there were 30 people on death row, according to the Oregon Department of Corrections.
Rather than put the matter to a vote again, majority Democrats this year narrowed the definition of aggravated murder — the only crime punishable by death in this state — to include only terrorist acts that kill two or more people, killing police officers or children younger than 14. Previously, killing more than one person or killing someone during a rape or robbery were also included. The 2019 bill reclassified those crimes as first-degree murder with a maximum sentence of life without parole.
Supporters of the bill intended it to apply only to new cases going forward, but the state Justice Department issued an opinion saying the new law could apply to previously convicted defendants who were granted a new trial or re-sentencing.
District attorneys and lawmakers who opposed the bill pushed for a special session to clarify the intent. Some House Democrats, however, argued that the bill didn’t need to be fixed, including Rep. Jennifer Williamson, the bill’s other chief supporter.
Contributing to the failure to agree, according to Prozanski, was a lack of trust between members, between the House and Senate, and between outside groups such as the District Attorneys Association.
The poisonous atmosphere lingering after two walkouts by Senate Republicans surely didn’t help matters.
Brown was right to call off the special session without assurances it would succeed. But the overall issue of the death penalty in general remains unresolved.
There are compelling reasons to abolish the death penalty entirely. The most persuasive of all is the real possibility that the state could wind up executing an innocent person. But that debate needs to involve all Oregon voters, not just lawmakers. Trying to restrict the death penalty by redefining aggravated murder is fraught with problems, as this mess illustrates.
Death penalty opponents should put the matter to the people, and make the case to voters.