It will soon be much harder for Oregon prosecutors to seek the death penalty.
On Thursday, Gov. Kate Brown signed Senate Bill 1013, which limits the types of crimes punishable by death to terrorist acts and murders of children and police officers, among other things.
“Oregon’s legislature made the wise decision to ‘close the front door’ — most of the way, at least — to death row, reserving death sentences for only the rarest and most heinous murders,” Brown said at a signing ceremony, according to prepared remarks. “This is an important step, in Oregon and nationally, toward one day eliminating the death penalty nationwide.”
In a state with a fickle past concerning capital punishment, SB 1013 presented a novel approach. Rather than asking voters to scrub the death penalty from the books, lawmakers decided to use their own authority to limit which offenses are punishable by death.
Aggravated murder, the only capital offense under state law, currently contains a list of 19 factors that could qualify someone for the death penalty. Those include things like paying another person for a murder, killing someone in the course of torturing them, and murdering someone to conceal a crime.
When SB 1013 takes effect in late September, the definition will be more simple. Under the change, terrorist attacks that kill at least two people, premeditated murders of children under age 14, and the premeditated murder of a law enforcement officer would qualify. Convicted murderers who kill another prisoner while incarcerated are also included.
The bill also alters the questions Oregon jurors must answer in order to sentence a defendant to death, removing a query about whether the person is likely to be dangerous in the future. Death penalty opponents argue that question is impossible to answer and could result in Oregon’s law being found unconstitutional.
The bill saw final passage in the frenetic final days of this year's legislative session, but not without objection. Prosecutors have argued that it too strictly narrows the death penalty and say that voters should decide changes to capital punishment. Family members of murder victims also testified against the bill — and had a hand in forcing a late amendment adding murders of law enforcement officers to the bill.
But in signing the SB 1013, Brown indicated that she agreed with a chief argument from death penalty opponents that capital punishment is ineffective and needlessly expensive.
“Oregon’s death penalty is dysfunctional. It is costly and immoral,” Brown said, according to her prepared remarks. “Our state’s criminal justice system continues to impose death sentences, and send people to death row, even as we know that no one has been executed here in a generation.”
Only two inmates have been executed in the state in the last 50 years, and both had ceased fighting their sentences. As governor, Brown has continued a moratorium on executions put into place in 2011 by then-Gov. John Kitzhaber.
Lawmakers led by Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, and Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, indicated late last year that they would be taking a shot at changes to Oregon's capital punishment law without asking voters. But they appeared, initially, to be waging an unlikely fight.
House Speaker Tina Kotek told OPB in December that "any change to the death penalty is a constitutional question to be decided by the voters." As speaker, Kotek could have blocked the bill's passage in the House.
Instead, she wound up voting in favor of the bill.