Attorneys for the man accused of killing two people on a Portland light rail train in May 2017 have asked a judge to delay his murder trial.
The attorneys want to push back the June case partly because of a bill working its way through the Oregon Legislature that could change how the death penalty is applied.
Jeremy Christian has been charged with two counts of aggravated murder, which carry the possibility of the death sentence in Oregon. But Senate Bill 1013 would narrow the definition of aggravated murder. It passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee this month and is currently awaiting a vote of the full Oregon Senate.
In a court document filed early Friday, Christian’s defense said the bill would have a direct impact on the case.
“Legislation bearing on Oregon’s capital punishment scheme may become law — potentially during the litigation in this case,” defense lawyer Greg Scholl wrote in the court filing. “That legislation would have a direct bearing on the validity of any conviction obtained, any potential sentencing proceeding, and any plea negotiations. That impact would be dramatic in this case.”
Scholl said prosecutors have indicated they don’t oppose moving the case because of the legislation.
During a hearing in Multnomah County circuit court Friday, Judge Cheryl Albrecht noted that the defense wanted to further develop its reasons for pushing the trial back. She said she would hear arguments next Friday.
Under the current draft of SB 1013, aggravated murder charges would apply to cases involving what amounts to terrorism, as well as those involving defendants currently serving time for murder who commit another killing inside correctional institutions. A person could also be charged with aggravated murder in cases of premeditated murder involving a victim younger than 14.
If the bill passes, it’s possible Christian would have to be re-indicted on new charges.
Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill declined an interview request about the legislation.
“District Attorney Rod Underhill believes certain criminal justice issues, like death penalty reform, should be referred to the voters,” spokesman Brent Weisberg said in a statement.
The Oregon District Attorneys Association opposes the bill.
“The death penalty in Oregon was created through citizen initiative petition filed July 6, 1983, and adopted by the people Nov. 6, 1984,” said ODAA executive director Tim Colahan. “Any change should be done in a transparent manner and should be decided by the voters.”
The 2017 attack became national news; witnesses on the MAX train said Christian yelled anti-Muslim slurs at two women of color before fatally stabbing two men and injuring a third.
Christian, 36, also had a history of attending tense political protests. At an April 2017 rally in east Portland, for example, he shouted racial slurs and made Nazi salutes.
It’s unclear how the Christian trial may affect the debate in Salem.
“The death penalty is an issue that we struggle with — whether you just put it on the ballot,” Senate President Peter Courtney told OPB this week.
Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and supports the bill, is still working on the legislation.
Prozanski is “going to add to it, but subtract from it to try to change it, so it’ll be interesting to see how that bill goes,” Courtney said. “I don’t have a feel for it right now.”
During a hearing in court Friday, Christian called one of the victims in the case “a liar.” Albrecht had courtroom deputies remove Christian from the courtroom.
OPB’s Meerah Powell and Dirk VanderHart contributed to this story.