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Oregon DA Seeks Death Penalty Despite Personal Opposition

Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel

Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel

John Hummel’s Office

Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel personally opposes the death penalty. But he is seeking it for Edwin Lara, a former campus safety officer at Central Oregon Community College who is accused of killing COCC student Kaylee Sawyer.

Hummel explained how he came to his decision to OPB’s Dave Miller on “Think Out Loud.”

“I look at how my office has handled previous aggravated murder cases,” Hummel said. “Because I have a duty to make sure that every suspect is treated fairly … he can’t be treated better or worse than previous suspects.”

Oregon has very specific rules about what counts as aggravated murder — the only crime that can lead to a death sentence. Murders where the victim is less than 14 years old, a police officer, a juror, or crimes in which there are multiple murder victims are among those that count as “aggravated murder.”

In determining whether to ask for the death penalty in Lara’s case, Hummel said he met with Sawyer’s family, assigned deputy DAs to present arguments for and against the death penalty, met with Lara’s attorneys, and talked to law enforcement officers. 

After conducting those interviews, he said, “I sat alone. I considered everything I heard — the facts the, law, the victim’s impact and then I made the decision that I think was called for by Oregon law.”

He says his own personal beliefs didn’t factor into his decision.

“I think killing is wrong and the government shouldn’t do it,” he said. “But I was not elected by the residents of Deschutes County to enforce laws I agreed with and ignore laws I disagreed with. I was charged with enforcing the laws of Oregon.”

Nevertheless, a capital case is still very different from any other trial, he said.

“Death is different … . This is a person’s life we’re talking about. So it is different; it should be different. We spend more time on these cases. We spend more energy. It’s more stressful. We think about it more; we take it home with us.”  

Hummel thinks it’s time for Oregon to reconsider its law on the death penalty. Oregonians last voted on the death penalty in 1984, when they supported the law.

“Let’s look at it again,” he said. “It’s not wrong to periodically look at something as important as death.”

Timeline: The Death Penalty In Oregon

As part of the “Think Out Loud” series on the death penalty, Bill Long, author of “A Tortured History: The Story of Capital Punishment in Oregon,” tells us about Oregon’s back-and-forth relationship with the death penalty.

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