© 2024 | Jefferson Public Radio
Southern Oregon University
1250 Siskiyou Blvd.
Ashland, OR 97520
541.552.6301 | 800.782.6191
Listen | Discover | Engage a service of Southern Oregon University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Should Oregon's Death Penalty Law Be Re-Tweaked? Key Lawmakers Disagree

<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

Key legislators behind changes to Oregon’s death penalty law disagree over whether the law now needs to be revised, a week after the Oregon Department of Justice raised an alarm over the matter.

Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, and Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, have taken differing positions in recent days on whether Gov. Kate Brown should call a special session to address confusion with Senate Bill 1013.

At issue is how the bill treats cases in which a person has been convicted of aggravated murder, the state’s only capital crime, but where a court decides that a new trial or re-sentencing is in order.

In one recent case, a man sentenced to death for raping and murdering a 15-year-old girl in 1998 was deemed ineligible for being re-sentenced to death upon re-trial. That caused a DOJ attorney to issue a memo to prosecutors, warning that the new law was more broad that the Justice Department had thought.

SB 1013 narrowed the definition of aggravated murder, allowing prosecutors to seek the death penalty in a far smaller set of circumstances than it previously could. Among those circumstances: murder of a child under age 14, murder of a law enforcement officer and a terrorist attack that kills at least two people.

Both Prozanski and Williamson said repeatedly in selling SB 1013 that it would not be “retroactive,” but both acknowledged in recent days that they could have been clearer about their meaning behind the term.

Prozanski on Friday stood by comments made earlier in the week, saying he’d made a request to the governor’s office to convene a special session of the Legislature next month — an approach favored by the state’s prosecutors. Prozanski hopes to speak with Brown in person about the matter next week, he said.

Williamson, meanwhile, said SB 1013 accomplished precisely what she intended, and that no further action is needed.

“This is the bill we asked for,” she said Thursday. “There’s nothing to fix.”

The kerfuffle highlights the complexities of passing legislation concerning death penalty cases, which are subject to high legal protections.

In a June 19 speech on the House floor, Williamson assured her colleagues that SB 1013 “is not retroactive. It applies to aggravated murder cases going forward. It does not remove anyone currently from death row.”

The lawmaker argues that is still accurate — assuming that a person on death row has a conviction that is not sent back for a new sentencing or trial. But in cases where a new trial or sentencing phase is ordered — such as the Washington County case — Williamson said, the new rules should apply.

“If the court has determined your process was illegal, then, yes, you start over,” she said.

In an e-mail to House Democrats sent Friday, Williamson forcefully laid out her defense of the bill, and blamed the state’s prosecutors for muddying the waters.

“Much of this confusion is a result of the Oregon District Attorneys Association’s repeated claims in the media that the new law is confusing,” she wrote. “The ODAA used this same coordinated strategy to oppose limitations to the death penalty during session and continue to oppose this new law after its passage.”

Prozanski has taken a different tack, believing that changes should be made to better clarify things.

To his way of thinking, a defendant whose been convicted of aggravated murder before SB 1013 goes into effect should be held to the older rules, even if a court rules they must be re-sentenced. But if courts give a person a re-trial, Prozanski believes the more stringent new sentencing rules should apply.

In a conversation Friday, Prozanski appeared to be open to a number of potential legislative changes to the law, but he was adamant that something should be tweaked next month, before the bill’s operative date of September 29.

“I am going to continue to advocate that we need to have a special session to address this issue,” he said. “We have a difference of opinion at this point.”

Prozanski and Williamson serve as chairs of the judiciary committees in their respective chambers, and largely appeared to agree this year on a slate of justice issues that included an overhaul to the state’s juvenile sentencing laws.

Gov. Kate Brown’s office has not indicated whether the governor is seriously considering a special session. A spokeswoman declined comment Friday.

In the meantime, the Oregon District Attorney Association is continuing its opposition. In a letter to Williamson and Prozanski, the group’s president, Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert, called on lawmakers to either repeal the law altogether or clarify that the new rules apply to crimes committed after September 29.

“This law is a failure on multiple levels,” Heckert wrote. “A failure to respect the will of voters, a failure to draft a clear law for Oregon’s most dangerous criminals, and a failure of trust by telling voters it is not retroactive when the opposite is true.”

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.