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Gov. Kate Brown Will Call Special Session To Fix Oregon Death Penalty

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown greets government officials and members of the judiciary in her ceremonial office before her inaugural address at the Capitol in Salem, Ore., Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.
Bradley W. Parks
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown greets government officials and members of the judiciary in her ceremonial office before her inaugural address at the Capitol in Salem, Ore., Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown plans to convene lawmakers next month in a bid to end outcry over recent far-reaching changes to Oregon’s death penalty laws.

Facing blowback from district attorneys and crime victim groups — and with the approval of even the new law’s chief proponents — Brown signaled Wednesday that she’ll call a narrowly focused special session in September. Legislators are already scheduled to be in Salem from Sept. 16-18 to conduct routine business.

"I am willing to support a legislative session," Brown said. "Given the seriousness of the issues that we're dealing with and the impact on victims and families, I  think it's critically important that there be clarity about the law."

Brown made clear her support is contingent on lawmakers bringing forth a proposal and getting "the votes to make it happen."

"Should that be accomplished, I will call a special session before the end of September," she said.

The session would be aimed at correcting elements of Senate Bill 1013, which sought to reduce use of the death penalty in Oregon. By amending the definition of aggravated murder, the state’s only capital crime, the bill narrowed the situations in which prosecutors can seek the death penalty.

In urging passage of SB 1013 earlier this year, lawmakers insisted repeatedly that it would not be “retroactive,” implying it would have no impact on old cases. But that may not be accurate – a Washington County judge recently deemed a former death row inmate ineligible for the death penalty.

The defendant in that case, Martin Johnson, had previously been convicted of raping and murdering a 15-year-old girl in 1998, but was granted a new trial by the Oregon Supreme Court. Under the new law, the crime Johnson is accused of committing would not qualify as aggravated murder.

The ruling led lawyers with the Oregon Department of Justice to re-examine their understanding of SB 1013, and acknowledge in an Aug. 9 email that the department had misled state prosecutors about the bill’s likely impacts. The Oregonian/OregonLive has reported that this new understanding could have far-reaching implications for Oregon’s current death row inmates.

In response, the state’s district attorneys, who opposed the bill, called on lawmakers to make changes.

The revelation also spurred reaction from the bill’s biggest legislative champions, Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, and Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland.

Prozanski announced that he’d never intended the bill to be so sweeping, and called on the governor to convene a special session. 

Williamson, on the other hand, said the law is working as intended. She said the new definition of aggravated murder should be used when inmates are granted new trials or sentencing hearings, and says the law is not “retroactive” because it cannot change the outcomes for defendants who have satisfied all of their options for appeal and post-conviction relief.

Despite that stance, Williamson sent a letter to Brown and legislative leadership over the weekend signaling she would support a special session.

“I made a commitment to the family of one of the victims impacted this week that I would inform each of you that I would support Senator Prozanski’s efforts to change the bill he drafted,” Williamson wrote, even as she defended her stance on the bill.

She added that she would use a special session to demand increased funding for victims of domestic and sexual violence — a move some viewedas disingenuous and which Brown said extends beyond the scope of a special session. 

Asked Wednesday how much blame her office shouldered for the confusion behind SB 1013, Brown told reporters there were "a lot of people involved in this bill. I think we all share some responsibility."

Assuming a special session is convened, it would be Brown's second as governor. In May 2018, she called a one-day special session for lawmakers to tweak Oregon's tax code.

This year's session could be trickier, not least because of the especially heated regular legislative session lawmakers concluded in late June. If the parties are unable to agree on rules, a special session could last well beyond a day and risk flaring tempers.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, has already warned that convening in September could be "dangerous" — a standard reaction to special sessions from the Senate's longest tenured leader.

While Brown said she "would hope that folks could put political differences aside to address this particular issue," Republicans on Wednesday suggested they would not make a session easy. 

"The last thing we should do in this situation is quickly rush something through a compressed process," House Minority Leader Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, said in a statement. "We do not want to compound the existing mistake by rushing a ‘fix’ through a day-long session in a hastily assembled committee."

Wilson said he'd instead support repealing the bill altogether. Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass, said he'd support a narrow fix to the bill, repealing it, or referring the matter to voters.

Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who had not indicated her position on the matter previously, said in a statement she supported changing the bill.

Exactly what changes will be proposed in a session remains to be seen.

The Oregon District Attorneys Association has called on lawmakers to make the new law applicable only to offenses that occur on or after SB 1013's Sept. 29 operative date. That would eliminate old crimes from being subject to SB 1013.

"While we continue to believe this change to Oregon’s death penalty laws should have been referred back to the voters, we support fixing Senate Bill 1013 by clarifying that it is not

retroactive and will only apply to new crimes going forward," the ODAA said in a statement Wednesday.

That approach, or something similar, appears likely to move forward — both Brown and Prozanski now support it.

"I have taken that position... based on the clarity that I think we need and to build the support that we want," said Prozanski, who had initially favored more-technical changes. "There's a lot of individuals [and] groups that may be wanting to utilize this time to do other things, but a special session should be reserved for the need that needs to be addressed. That is the potential consequences of not clarifying the application of 1013."

Prozanski said he's confident he can find a proposal that lawmakers will support, and said it was "unfortunate" Republicans had issued statements on the matter before discussions began.

"The reality is: Are we playing politics or are we taking care of an issue that needs to be taken care of?" he said. 

Crime victims groups have been adamant in recent weeks that some change is needed.

“This has a terrible effect on victims,” said Rosemary Brewer, executive director of the Oregon Crime Victims Law Center. “Families of homicide victims are left wondering, ‘What’s now going to happen with our case?’”

Brewer stopped short of making recommendations for how lawmakers should change the bill, saying only it needs to be “clarified.”

“There needs to be a clear definition that everybody is told, ‘This is what it means, this is how it’s applied,'” she said. “Right now that’s not happening.”

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.