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Killing Police Punishable By Death Under Amended Oregon Bill

<p>House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, signals her vote on the House floor at the Capitol in Salem, Ore., Tuesday, April 2, 2019.</p>

Bradley W. Parks

A proposal to sharply narrow the types of crimes punishable by death in Oregon might be scaled back, after robust opposition to the bill emerged in a recent hearing.

Under a forthcoming amendment to Senate Bill 1013, murders of law enforcement officers would remain capital crimes if the bill passes. A version of the bill that passed the Senate last month did not include killings of police officers and other officials in its definition of aggravated murder, the only crime punishable by death under state law.

“The debate over this bill made clear that law enforcement should be included in the updated statute,” House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, a supporter of the bill, said in a statement to OPB. “We will be bringing forth an amendment next week to satisfy those concerns.”

SB 1013 seeks to curtail Oregon’s use of the death penalty by limiting circumstances under which someone can be sentenced to death in the first place. It’s a strategy aimed at changing state policy on the contentious issue without asking voters to remove capital punishment from the Oregon Constitution.

As written, the bill would strip out many elements that currently constitute aggravated murder. Only terrorist acts that kill at least two people, murders of kids under 14 years old, and killings by imprisoned murderers meet the standard of the crime.

Other elements that currently qualify as aggravated murder would be shifted to another crime, first-degree murder, and would still be punishable by life in prison.

The bill received scant opposition in the Senate, with death penalty opponents offering the majority of testimony lawmakers heard. They argued that capital punishment in Oregon is ineffective, overly expensive and potentially unconstitutional. And they said it can be a burden on the families of murder victims, who might have to deal with decades of appeals hearings.

But the tenor of testimony changed when the bill reached the House. In a committee hearing this month, district attorneys and families of victims showed up to rail against the bill.

Among those to testify was Erik Best, whose father was one of two people killed in a 2017 stabbing on a Portland MAX train. A Portland man named Jeremy Christian has been charged with aggravated murder for the killings, and prosecutors have not announced whether they will pursue the death penalty. SB 1013 was among the reasons a Multnomah County judge delayed Christian’s trial earlier this year.

“The reality is [the death penalty] is sometimes a sad necessity,” Best told lawmakers. “To not let the jury have the ability ... to punish Jeremy Christian with the death penalty is taking away from the ability of the jury to enforce justice.”

Also appearing at the hearing was the family of Thomas Tennant, a Woodburn police captain who died in 2008 when a bomb exploded at a bank in Woodburn. The two men who set the bomb, Bruce and Joshua Turnidge, are currently on death row.

“This bill does not consider the rights of victims like myself in Oregon,” said Mary Tennant, Thomas Tennant’s widow. “Under this change in the law, if my husband was still alive today neither my husband or the thousands of other police officers in Oregon could be victims of aggravated murder if they are intentionally killed in the course of their official duty. That is wrong. It isn’t just.”

Prosecutors like Lane County District Attorney Patty Perlow argued the bill is inconsistent. Perlow presented a hypothetical case where a convicted murderer is released from prison and kills another person. Under SB 1013, that crime would not necessarily constitute aggravated murder. But if the same person murdered a person while still in prison, it would be a capital crime.

“Why is it more heinous that someone’s killed someone in prison?” Perlow asked. “I’m asking you to refer the matter to the voters so we can determine whether as a people we support the death penalty at all.”

The exact language of the planned amendment to SB 1013 isn’t clear. Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, submitted an amendment last week that would keep in place the portion of the current aggravated murder law that addresses killings of law enforcement. It’s possible another proposal could be moved instead.

Whatever the case, Williamson said the bill is headed for a vote.

“I look forward to the legislation moving out of committee and coming to the House floor,” she said.

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.