Oregon Governor Will Not Call Special Session To Adjust Death Penalty Law

Sep 18, 2019
Originally published on September 19, 2019 8:52 am

Gov. Kate Brown will not call a special session to address controversy in the state’s death penalty laws after support for a session failed to materialize in the Oregon House of Representatives.

"There does not appear to be support to ensure passage of a bill," Brown said in a statement Wednesday. "I cannot justify the additional cost and time a special session requires without that support, and I will not be calling the Legislature into a special session this month before the law goes into effect."

Brown’s decision comes three weeks after the governor announced she was open to convening lawmakers in order to tweak the effects of Senate Bill 1013, which narrowed the state’s capital punishment laws. But Brown’s support for a special session was contingent on proponents of such a tweak — namely Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, and Oregon prosecutors — building consensus around a bill that could be passed in one day.

That consensus did not emerge, despite weeks of lobbying. While Prozanski has said he had support in the Senate to pass a bill and had been circulating draft bill language among interested parties this week, House Democratic leadership was skeptical that SB 1013 needed changes. The proposal was seen as a tough vote for lawmakers who oppose capital punishment and were suddenly faced with a bill strengthening a law they had just pared back.

"The whole Senate stepped up to fix a problem," Prozanski said Wednesday, not long after meeting with Brown about her decision. "The issue was within the House of Representatives. Most Democrats and the Republican leadership were unable to demonstrate to the governor that they had the votes. I believe it was a game of politics."

In an Aug. 29 statement on the issue, House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said that there was “no consensus whether the law needs to be amended and there is no agreement among legislators on appropriate next steps.” House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, concurred with that statement, a spokesman said.

Republican lawmakers were said to be equally leery, with some feeling the death penalty bill should be repealed rather than altered. Even so, the House Republican Office criticized Brown's decision Wednesday, tweeting that it was "a lost opportunity to protect victims' families, find a bipartisan solution, and uphold the will of Oregonians."

The idea of a special session also saw push back from justice reformers, who viewed it as a step backward after Oregon had meaningfully narrowed its death penalty standards.

“Any amendment to SB 1013 that would increase the number of cases subject to death penalty is simply not a change we can support,” Kimberly McCullough, policy director for the ACLU of Oregon, wrote in a recent blog post.

SB 1013 represented the most meaningful change to the state’s capital punishment laws in years. Rather than seeking to repeal the policy outright — which would require a public vote — the bill redefined the crime of aggravated murder, the only offense punishable by death under state law.

Under the changes, aggravated murder only applies to terrorist attacks that kill two or more people, murders of children under 14 and law enforcement officers, and killings by prisoners who’ve already been convicted of murder.

SB 1013 was muscled through the Legislature by Prozanski and Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland. They and other supporters of the bill repeatedly slammed Oregon’s death penalty system as hugely expensive and inefficient.

But the bill was opposed by state prosecutors and some victims groups, who argued the changes it made were arbitrary and that voters should have a say in any changes.

Those protestations grew louder in August, when prosecutors say they learned that the bill would apply not just to future murder cases. The new law also applies to defendants who’ve been convicted of murder — even decades in the past — but who are granted new trials or sentencing hearings.

Advocates of SB 1013 have said that facet of the bill was always clear, and chided opponents for not reading the legislation. But prosecutors and the Oregon Department of Justice say they only learned about it when a former death row inmate was deemed ineligible for the death penalty upon retrial in Washington County.

The Oregon District Attorneys Association began lobbying for a tweak to the bill that ensured it would only apply to murders that occurred on or after Sept. 29, when the legislation is set to take effect. Prozanski wound up agreeing with that sentiment. Williamson, the bill’s other central champion, insisted that no change was needed.

In an interview last week, Prozanski said he’d built support among his fellow senators. That support was reflected in a letter Senate Majority Leader Herman Baertschiger, Jr., R-Grants Pass, sent to Brown on Wednesday. 

"On behalf of the Senate Republican Caucus, I am writing to urge that you call a special session dedicated solely to fixing Senate Bill 1013," Baertschiger wrote. "The Senate Republicans do no agree with SB 1013 as passed, but we refuse to stand silent and let this bill take effect and inflict even more trauma on the victims' families who have already experienced unimaginable pain."

House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, wrote a similar letter to Brown on Wednesday.

Despite those strong sentiments, Prozanski said last week that he'd run into difficulties getting getting various players in Salem to trust one another.

“There’s a lack of trust on many people’s parts and that lack of trust runs the gamut: member to member, chamber to chamber, organizations such as the DA association and the Legislature,” Prozanski said. “There’s a lot of concern as to if we made this fix can we feel confident that that’s a fix that everyone would abide by and allow the law to go forward.”

At the time, Prozanski said he still believed a session was possible, and that he was hoping the governor would call it on Sept. 27. But the senator's time ran out on Wednesday. 

"While it is clear there is a misunderstanding regarding the intent of the words in Senate Bill 1013," Brown's statement read, "it is also clear the support has not been built for a successful special session."

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