Gov. Kate Brown missed an excellent opportunity when she declined last week to call for a special session of the Legislature to amend Senate Bill 1013, a new law that revises the crime of aggravated murder and tightens which crimes carry the death penalty.
In a classic example of unintended consequences, lawmakers passed the law during the last legislative session believing the new law would not be retroactive. That means they believed the law would only apply to crimes going forward, not to individuals already in prison facing a sentence of death.
As soon as the law passed, though, the Oregon Department of Justice said the law could very well apply to people already on death row, creating the possibility many of their original sentences could be modified.
Many law enforcement and state district attorneys never liked the bill to begin with and some lawmakers — including Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena — didn’t vote for it. The dilemma the law created is a serious one and a great deal of confusion about the impact of the bill remains unknown.
There was enough gray area, then, to make a special session to revise the bill necessary and prudent. That the governor has declined to do that raises its own set of questions that voters should be able to get answers to.
The new law always left a lingering sense of unease to anyone committed to democracy in Oregon. That’s because such sweeping adjustments to the criminal code should be decided by the people. After all, it was voters — not lawmakers — who originally agreed to amend the state constitution in 1984 to legalize capital punishment. Voters should make that difficult call because the ramifications of the death penalty are extremely serious and long-lasting.
On this bill lawmakers simply didn’t get it right. They had the opportunity to do so but failed. The legislation, like so many others, was overshadowed by the big debate regarding the state’s effort to create a byzantine law to address carbon emissions. The bill deserved more attention and it didn’t get it, and now voters are left with few options other than to, once again, shake their heads at what is becoming more and more of a dysfunctional legislative system in Oregon.
The special session could have promptly, and effectively, addressed the issue, made the necessary modifications to the bill and been done with it.
Instead voters have another legislative mess to try and clean up.
Surely, we can do better than this.