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Attorneys For Suspected TriMet Train Killer Want Death Penalty Off The Table

<p>Jeremy Christian listens during a hearing in a Multnomah County courtroom in Portland, Ore., on Friday, May 3, 2019. Christian was in court seeking a delay in the beginning of his trial while the state considers changes to its death penalty law.</p>

Laurie Isola

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Jeremy Christian listens during a hearing in a Multnomah County courtroom in Portland, Ore., on Friday, May 3, 2019. Christian was in court seeking a delay in the beginning of his trial while the state considers changes to its death penalty law.

Attorneys for the man charged with killing two people on board a Portland light-rail train in 2017 have filed a motion to have the death penalty removed as a sentencing option.

Jeremy Christian's lawyers also have asked that the two counts of aggravated murder be dismissed, because they say the law no longer applies.

Christian is accused of stabbing three men aboard a MAX train in May 2017 when an altercation broke out over alleged hate speech he was directing at two young women on the train. One of the injured men survived. Christian has pleaded not guilty in the case. 

Oregon lawmakers changed the definition of aggravated murder this year with Senate Bill 1013, which went into effect Sept. 29. It narrowed the definition of aggravated murder significantly.

Under the new law, aggravated murder — which is Oregon's only criminal charge that carries a potential death sentence — can only be applied in cases of premeditated murder of children under 14 years old or murders of law enforcement officers, terrorist attacks that kill at least two people, and prison killings carried out by someone who’d previously been convicted of murder.

Christian's is one of at least five cases where defendants have filed motions arguing aggravated murder charges no longer apply since SB 1013 was passed.

In Multnomah County, attorneys also filed a motion this week in the case of Homer Lee Jackson, an  alleged serial killer accused of sexually assaulting and murdering four Portland women in the 1980s and ’90s.

"SB 1013 gives a new definition for Aggravated Murder and is based on elements not pleaded in the present case," Christian's attorneys wrote in court documents filed this week. "Therefore, there is no legal basis for the State to proceed against defendant on Aggravated Murder in the present case."

The attorneys note that the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office may decide to amend the indictment to first-degree murder, a charge that does not carry the possibility of a death sentence.

"As it relates to this case, what was previously Aggravated Murder is now reclassified as Murder in the First Degree for which the death penalty is not a sentencing option," the attorneys wrote. "Thus, Mr. Christian is not subject to the death penalty."

According to an analysis by OPB, as the new law took effect on Sunday, at least 43 open cases in the state included one or more charges of aggravated murder.

Under the now narrower definition of the law, though, OPB found just one of those cases appears certain to proceed as an aggravated murder charge. Up to five additional defendants have cases that potentially still qualify.

Christian's attorneys have requested oral arguments to decide the matter. 

The Multnomah County District Attorney's Office has as many as nine murder cases, including Christian's, that could be downgraded from aggravated murder. 

“The Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office is aware of the court filings in State v. Jeremy Christian," said Brent Weisberg, communications director for the Multnomah district attorney. "This office will thoroughly review any motions submitted to the court and will respond accordingly upon the conclusion of our legal analysis.”

OPB's Dirk VanderHart contributed reporting.

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Conrad Wilson is a reporter and producer covering criminal justice and legal affairs for OPB.