Bill would effectively abolish the death penalty in Oregon

Mar 8, 2019 Under House Bill 3268, aggravated murder would be limited to only crimes when two or more people are killed
in a terror attack. This shows the death chamber at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. Photo by Beth

A bill filed Monday would allow the death penalty only in cases involving terrorism-related killings, effectively abolishing capital punishment in Oregon.

Currently, aggravated murder includes crimes such as killing a child under 12, killing more than one person, killing a police officer on duty or killing someone during a rape or robbery. Those crimes are eligible for the
death penalty.

Under House Bill 3268, aggravated murder would be limited to only crimes when two or more people are killed in a terror attack.

Crimes considered aggravated murder under current law would be classified as first-degree murder, which would carry a maximum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, is the bill’s chief sponsor; 10 lawmakers, including one Republican, Rep. Ronald Noble of McMinnville, have also signed onto the bill.

“I think generally people support doing away with the death penalty,” Greenlick said. “I know it’s problematically applied and it’s extraordinarily expensive.”

Mary Elledge, an Oregon City woman whose son, Rob, was murdered in 1986, said she opposes eliminating the death penalty even though executions are rare in Oregon. She said just the threat of the death penalty can be effective in murder cases. Elledge leads a local chapter of Parents of Murdered Children,
a nonprofit that does not take a position on the death penalty. She said her personal views do not reflect those of the organization.

“The death penalty is a great bargaining tool,” she said.

The bill represents the latest chapter of Oregon’s long and evolving stance on the death penalty. Oregonians voted to abolish capital punishment in 1914. It was reinstated by popular vote in 1920, then repealed again by voters in 1964. It was reinstated in 1978, knocked down in 1981 by the court only to be reinstated again in 1984.

In 2011, then-Gov. John Kitzhaber imposed a moratorium on the death penalty. He argued that the death penalty isn’t handed down fairly: Some inmates on death row have committed similar crimes as those who are serving life sentences. He said capital punishment should be replaced with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

In 2015, Gov. Kate Brown, who personally opposes the death penalty, extended the moratorium.

Oregon hasn’t executed anyone since 1997. In the past five decades, the state executed two men, both in the 1990s. Those men essentially had volunteered for the death penalty after waiving their rights to appeal before
their deaths.

There are currently 30 people on death row.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, states continue to grapple with the fairness and cost of capital punishment, currently authorized in 31 states. Since 2009, a handful of states, including New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut and Maryland, have abolished the death penalty through legislation and replaced it with life without parole.

The Nebraska Legislature also abolished capital punishment in 2015, but it was reinstated by a statewide vote in 2016. Courts in Delaware recently ruled that the state’s capital punishment law is unconstitutional.

A 2016 study funded by an anti-death penalty organization, the Oregon Justice Resource Center, concluded that the costs associated with the death penalty in Oregon are almost twice as much as those for life sentences.

Alice Lundell, a spokeswoman for the Justice Resource Center, said HB 3268 is a positive step but doesn’t go far enough. Her organization has advocated for a complete elimination of the death penalty and has urged Brown to commute the sentences of those on death row.

She said the bill doesn’t address the fundamental problems with capital punishment, such as its costs, high reversal rates and its uneven application among counties.

“But it’s still a good thing to limit it further,” Lundell said.

The Oregon District Attorneys Association issued a brief statement Monday saying the death penalty was created through a citizen initiative petition in 1983 and was adopted the following year.

“Any change should be done in a transparent manner and should be decided by the voters,” said Beth Heckert, organization president and Jackson County district attorney.

-- Noelle Crombie



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