Defense lawyers say Multnomah County DA candidate violated ethics by accusing client of being a serial killer

By Conrad Wilson (OPB)
April 15, 2024 1:22 p.m.

Defense attorneys say Nathan Vasquez, a longtime prosecutor currently running for Multnomah County district attorney, violated ethical rules by publicly accusing a man not currently charged with a crime, of being a serial killer.

Vasquez, a senior deputy district attorney, is running to unseat his boss, current District Attorney Mike Schmidt.

Man in navy blue suit with pink tie and greying, slicked back hair

Senior deputy Multnomah County District Attorney Nathan Vasquez said he has not seen the bar complaint, but confirmed and defended his remarks in the voter guide.

Multnomah County District Attorney's Office

In a statement attributed to “Nathan” and published in the Oregon Secretary of State’s Voter’s Guide that is posted online and will be mailed to voters before the May election, Vasquez criticized Schmidt’s tenure:

“Under my opponent’s watch, a violent criminal who was arrested for kidnapping and assaulting a police officer was released from prison. Once free, he murdered four women. This is unacceptable.”

Attorneys representing Jesse Lee Calhoun wrote to several top prosecutors in the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office last month to complain.

“This is an unprecedented situation, particularly given that Mr. Calhoun has not been formally charged in this matter, much less convicted in a court of law,” Cameron Taylor, an attorney at Metropolitan Public Defender, wrote in a March 29 letter to Senior Deputy District Attorney Todd Jackson. Schmidt and Vasquez were also copied.

“For a ranking member of your office to issue an unequivocal statement of our client’s guilt in such a forum, in the absence of any due process and for the sole apparent purpose of obtaining political advantage against another member of your office, is deeply troubling and antithetical to our system of justice.”

Taylor noted that Oregon’s juries are drawn from voter registration rolls. In the event Calhoun was charged and the case went to trial, all potential jurors would have been exposed to Vasquez’s statement, Taylor added.

“It is even more concerning that the statement was made in an official government publication, which would likely be interpreted by the average citizen as a more trustworthy source than, for example, a media outlet,” Taylor wrote.

The voter guide statement also prompted an Oregon State Bar ethics complaint against Vasquez last week by Lewis & Clark Law School Professor Aliza Kaplan. She says Vasquez made dishonest and misleading statements and violated his special role as prosecutor.

“His actions not only undermine the public’s trust in the legal profession but also jeopardize the fairness and integrity of the judicial process, especially when viewed in light of his current and desired prosecutorial authority,” Kaplan wrote in the complaint. Kaplan supports Schmidt for district attorney and has donated $250 to his campaign.

In an interview Friday, Vasquez said he has not seen the bar complaint, but confirmed and defended his remarks in the voter guide.

“Everything I did was well within the election laws,” Vasquez said. “I’m only saying what’s been put out in the media.”

Law enforcement has not publicly named Calhoun. Media accounts that first named Calhoun as “a person of interest” were attributed to anonymous law enforcement sources.

Vasquez then suggested his remarks were not as significant as Calhoun’s defense suggested.

“I didn’t name him,” Vasquez said of Calhoun. “It’s a voter pamphlet for Multnomah County — their argument would be, ‘Oh we can’t get a fair trial.’”

Vasquez blamed any controversy surrounding his voter guide on his opponent.

“This is pushed forward by Mike Schmidt,” Vasquez said. “How would these defense attorneys know about this? That was sent to them by Mike Schmidt.”

Vasquez alleges his boss, District Attorney Mike Schmidt, is behind the ethics complaint. In response, Schmidt called it “desperate and untrue” for anyone to suggest his campaign would send information to defense attorneys about an open criminal case his office was investigating to benefit his reelection bid.

Vasquez alleges his boss, District Attorney Mike Schmidt, is behind the ethics complaint. In response, Schmidt called it “desperate and untrue” for anyone to suggest his campaign would send information to defense attorneys about an open criminal case his office was investigating to benefit his reelection bid.

Courtesy Mike Schmidt

Vasquez said that at the time the defense attorneys sent their letter, the voter guide was an “obscure online find.”

In response, Schmidt called it “desperate and untrue” for anyone to suggest his campaign would send information to defense attorneys about an open criminal case his office was investigating to benefit his reelection bid.


In the voter guide statement, Vasquez stopped short of naming the person he accuses of murdering four people after being released from prison. Vasquez told OPB he was referring to Calhoun, a 39 year-old man currently incarcerated at the Snake River Correctional Institution in eastern Oregon.

In July 2023, law enforcement agencies investigating the deaths of four young women in Polk, Clackamas and Multnomah counties said they “identified at least one person of interest that is linked to all four of the decedents” and that there was no danger to the public.

Calhoun has not been charged in any of the four deaths.

Calhoun was one of 40 people whose sentences former Gov. Kate Brown commuted after they joined crews to help fight the devastating 2020 wildfires. He had less than a year left to serve in a sentence for unauthorized use of a vehicle. That was the last of several convictions that sent him to prison, including assault on a public safety officer and burglary.

Commutation refers to the governor’s power to change a convicted person’s sentence. Sometimes commutation means a shorter sentence, other times it can result in a person’s release from prison, or an opportunity to appear before the parole board to petition for early release.

Calhoun left prison on July 22, 2021 — 11 months early. Even if he had served his entire sentence, he still would have been out in December 2022, when the first woman in the suspected string of killings was reported missing.

Still, Schmidt has been criticized by other elected district attorneys, and Vasquez, for not reviewing the wildfire commutations, including Calhoun’s.

Before Brown awarded the firefighter commutations, she had the Oregon Department of Corrections notify local district attorneys who had prosecuted the prisoners she was considering. Statewide, 14 of Oregon’s 36 district attorneys responded with concerns to certain prisoners poised to receive a commutation, records show. In several cases, when prosecutors raised a concern, the governor removed that prisoner from her commutation list.

Schmidt’s office never responded to the corrections department about 15 people his office had prosecuted who were up for early release. The agency said prosecutors could, but were not required, to respond.

Last fall, the Office of Public Defense Services granted Calhoun the use of a public defender, even though he had not been charged in the killings. The state agency can assign public defenders to people who have not been charged with a crime when the person is “a clear target of the investigation,” among other factors.

Typically, prosecutors take great pains to not comment publicly before charges are filed and a case goes to trial. Public announcements about charges against defendants issued by the district attorney’s office usually carry the disclaimer that charges are allegations that have not been proven in court and that the defendant is presumed innocent.

In her ethics complaint to the state bar, Kaplan says Vasquez’s voter guide statement jeopardizes not only the integrity of prosecution, but also the larger criminal justice system.

“Designed to influence public opinion and electoral outcomes, Mr. Vasquez’s statement risks prejudicing potential proceedings and heightening public condemnation of an individual who has not been charged with the crimes mentioned,” Kaplan wrote. “Mr. Vasquez’s actions demonstrate a disregard for the ethical obligations that safeguard the fairness and impartiality of legal proceedings, essential tenets of the justice system he is sworn to serve.”

Anyone can file a complaint to the state bar if they believe an attorney has violated ethical rules. It’s more common for an unhappy client, not satisfied with their representation or outcome of their case to file a complaint against their lawyer. It’s less common for attorneys to file ethics complaints against one another. Last year, the bar received 1,655 ethics complaints, but just 244 — less than 15% — moved to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel for further investigation.

Schmidt said he was aware of the statement Vasquez made in the voter pamphlet.

“He is not speaking on behalf of this office,” Schmidt said in a statement Friday. “Of paramount importance to the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office is achieving justice for crime victims and their families. My office is focused on protecting the integrity of every investigation and prosecution. Any deliberate action which makes that goal more challenging is unacceptable.”

Vasquez said the criticism shouldn’t be about the statements he made, but rather about Schmidt’s decisions as Multnomah County’s top prosecutor.

“The real question here is why didn’t Schmidt review this in the first place?” Vasquez said. “And why hasn’t he brought this to the grand jury to give the victim’s families justice?”

Vasquez also criticized Kaplan, who has worked with Schmidt and his office on commutations:

“It’s such a biased source, it is a meaningful component to this,” Vasquez said of Kaplan’s ethics complaint.

Kaplan helped people secure clemency during Brown’s tenure, but did not work on group commutations that included Calhoun.

The race for Multnomah County prosecutor has turned heated, and has included other bar complaints. Last week, former Multnomah County prosecutor Chuck French filed a complaint against Schmidt accusing the district attorney of failing to follow state commutation laws for two people convicted of murder.

“Those offenders were granted clemency by the Governor after repeated instances where MCDA [the Multnomah County District Attorney] failed to follow the office’s obligations under Oregon law in processing those offenders’ clemency applications and in some cases misrepresented the facts of those cases to the Governor and later to the public,” French wrote.

That complaint was first reported by Willamette Week. Both people whose sentences were commuted got the opportunity to appear before the parole board. Both had their requests denied and remain in prison.