Gov. Kate Brown last week signed a bill that narrows Oregon’s use of the death penalty by limiting the crimes that qualify for capital punishment.
The bill likely won’t make that much difference in Oregon, a state that has not executed a prisoner since 1997 and doesn’t seem poised to do so anytime soon. Brown has maintained a moratorium on capital punishment that was first put into place by Gov. John Kitzhaber.
The bill was crafted in such a way that the issue didn’t have to be referred to voters. In that regard, it represents a missed opportunity. Voters should have gotten the chance to weigh in, not just on this issue, but on the larger question: Should Oregon continue to keep capital punishment on the books?
The bill Brown signed carefully skates around that question; in fact, it was crafted to do that. Previously, the death sentence in Oregon could be applied to cases of aggravated murder, which includes crimes such as killing on-duty police officers or slayings committed during a rape or robbery. Now, those crimes will receive sentences of life without the possibility of parole.
The death penalty in Oregon now can only be applied in four types of crimes: killings motivated by terrorism, murders of children 14 years or younger, killings by an incarcerated person who’s serving a previous aggravated murder sentence, and premeditated killings of police or corrections officers.
The law is not retroactive and will not apply to the 30 people on Oregon’s death row.
It seems obvious that lawmakers were looking for a way to avoid asking the broader question about whether the state should follow the example of other states and do away with capital punishment. But we don’t understand their reluctance, unless lawmakers thought that Oregonians were likely to reject any attempt to ban the death penalty.
We’re not so sure that’s the case, considering Oregonians’ long and twisty history with the death penalty. Capital punishment was outlawed by Oregon voters in 1914, and then reenacted in 1978. Three years later, the state Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional, a ruling that paved the way for a 1984 initiative in which voters reaffirmed capital punishment.
Since then, the topic rarely has been revisited in Oregon, and the gubernatorial moratoriums have had the effect of sweeping the debate about capital punishment under the rug. It would have been an easy matter to refer the measure, Senate Bill 1013, to the state’s voters. Or death penalty opponents could have moved to place the broader question on a statewide ballot.
That last option still is available to legislators — or, for that matter, to any group of citizens with the interest, time and money required to place an initiative on the statewide ballot. But surely there is a lawmaker willing to take a stab at referring the big question to voters; certainly, the discussion that would result is long overdue.