Legislature file art (copy)

A proposal that would essentially abolish the death penalty in Oregon has been introduced in the Legislature — and the carefully crafted bill does exactly what its proponents said it would do when they first started talking about it late last year.

Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, is the chief sponsor of House Bill 3268, which would allow the death penalty to be applied only in cases involving terrorism-related killings. Another 10 lawmakers, including one Republican (Ronald Noble, of McMinnville, who used to work at the Corvallis Police Department), have signed on as cosponsors.

The bill redefines the crime of aggravated murder, an offense that can be punished by death under Oregon law. As the law now reads, aggravated murder includes crimes such as killing more than one person, killing a child under the age of 12, killing a police officer on duty or killing someone during a rape or robbery.

Under the terms of House Bill 3268, those crimes now would be redefined as murder in the first degree. The maximum punishment for that would be life in prison without possibility of parole.

Greenlick has been vocal about his opposition to the death penalty. "I think generally people support doing away with the death penalty," he told The Oregonian newspaper this week. "I know it's problematically applied and it's extraordinarily expensive."

Greenlick is right on a couple of those counts: There's little doubt anymore that the death penalty is not fairly or consistently applied — and, in fact, The Oregonian cited a 2016 study from the Oregon Justice Resource Center, an organization that advocates criminal justice reform, concluding that the costs associated with the death penalty are nearly twice as much as those for life sentences.

Greenlick might also be right when he says most people generally favor doing away with the death penalty. But there's only one way to tell for sure: Put the issue to a vote of the people.

The verdict of Oregon voters over the last century on capital punishment has been mixed: Capital punishment was outlawed by voters in 1914 and then was re-enacted in 1978. Three years later, the state Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional, paving the way for a 1984 initiative in which voters reaffirmed capital punishment. Since then, though, the topic has been rarely revisited in Oregon. In fact, we've been surprised that there hasn't been more of a push on the part of state officials and lawmakers to refer the death penalty to voters. After then-Gov. John Kitzhaber imposed a moratorium on capital punishment in 2011, he made a halfhearted effort to goad the Legislature into action, but the proposal didn't gain any traction. Gov. Kate Brown has continued the moratorium, but otherwise has been quiet on the issue.

Oregon hasn't executed a prisoner since May 1997; the state has 32 men and one woman on death row. 

It's entirely possible that Oregon citizens today have a different take on capital punishment. But the final word should belong with the voters. (mm)

Merkley takes a pass

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley on Tuesday made official what many of us suspected already: He'll pass on a race for president in 2020 and focus instead on a re-election bid.

Merkley's path to a presidential bid was complicated by an Oregon law that bars candidates from running for more than one paid office in the same election. So he had to choose between running for re-election to the Senate or what looked like a long-shot presidential bid in an increasingly crowded Democratic field. He made the smart choice.

It is not true, by the way, that Merkley will be the only Democratic U.S. senator not running for president. It just seems that way. (And the truth is that only five Democratic senators are running right now; Bernie Sanders, who also is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, is an independent.) (mm)

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