A proposal to pare down Oregon’s death penalty law is moving forward, after being approved by the state Senate on Tuesday.

With little fanfare — and zero debate — what some regard as the most meaningful effort to curtail the death penalty in recent memory passed in an 18-9 vote that largely stuck to party lines.

If passed in the House and signed by Gov. Kate Brown, Senate Bill 1013 would redefine the crime of aggravated murder, the only offense punishable by death in Oregon. The bill would strip out many elements that currently constitute the crime, moving them to newly created classes of murder.

Moving forward, aggravated murder would be limited to homicides where two or more people are killed to intimidate a civilian population or influence a government — crimes that are associated with terrorist acts. Defendants who murdered children under the age of 14, or killed another inmate while serving time for a murder conviction, could also be sentenced to death.

Additionally, the bill would change 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.

“At this point, we have found that the system and the statute is not complying with what we want and what we intended,” said state Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, a chief backer of the proposal and the only senator to speak on either side of the issue before Tuesday’s vote.

Democratic Oregon state Sen. Floyd Prozanski greets an Oregon State Trooper at the conclusion of the Oregon Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing on Senate Bill 978 the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Tuesday, April 2, 2019. He makes his way through a crowded room of opponents and supporters of the proposed gun control legislation.

Democratic Oregon state Sen. Floyd Prozanski greets an Oregon State Trooper at the conclusion of the Oregon Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on Senate Bill 978 the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Tuesday, April 2, 2019. He makes his way through a crowded room of opponents and supporters of the proposed gun control legislation.

Bryan M. Vance/OPB

He and other supporters of the bill argue that capital punishment rarely gives much closure to families of victims since cases can take decades to fully resolve. They also contend the process is expensive. A 2016 study found death penalty cases can cost between $800,000 and $1 million more than cases where a defendant is facing life without parole.

Debate over the bill has injected uncertainty into ongoing criminal cases that could involve death sentences. Perhaps most prominently, the trial of a man accused of murdering two men on a Portland light rail train was recently delayed until next year, partly out of concerns over changes to the law. 

Capital punishment was approved by voters in 1984, and could not be removed from the Oregon Constitution without a public vote. While opponents of the death penalty concede such a vote could be a tough sell, they have argued lawmakers have the prerogative to alter what crimes are punishable by death.

People who’ve opposed the bill, meanwhile, have said the law should not be changed without input from voters. That’s a sentiment that’s been shared by House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, who could block the bill’s path in the House. Kotek said Tuesday she needed to read the bill in its current form before commenting on whether it would get a vote.

Despite being on the books, capital punishment is rarely used in Oregon. Then-Gov. John Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on executions in 2011, and Gov. Kate Brown has continued the policy. Just two inmates have been executed in the state in the last 50 years, and both had ceased fighting their sentences.