A bill before the state Senate that essentially would abolish the death penalty in Oregon appears to have some momentum in the Legislature.
The bill, Senate Bill 1013, drew generally favorable testimony during a hearing this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill, which mirrors a similar measure pending in the House, redefines the crime of aggravated murder (the only crime in Oregon statutes that can be punished by death), so that it includes only acts of terror that kill two or more people. 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. Those crimes would now be defined as murder in the first degree. The maximum punishment for that would be life in prison without possibility of parole.
The proposed legislation also would change one of the four questions juries must decide when considering whether to impose a death sentence. Oregon jurors now must determine whether a person guilty of aggravated murder is at risk of being a danger in the future. The bill would remove that question, which is fine: It's an unfair and unscientific duty to ask jurors to tackle.
Sen. Floyd Prozanski, the influential Eugene Democrat who is the chair of the Senate Judicial Committee, said he believes the bill has a lot of support. "“We have a system that is broken," he said. "We have people who are still on death row for 30 years.”
Prozanski did say that he was planning to introduce amendments to the bill which would allow the death penalty in cases in which the victim is under age 14 and in killings committed by people behind bars who previously have been convicted for murder. Those changes likely will appeal to some prosecutors, but they likely won't necessarily be enough to silence critics such as Lane County District Attorney Patty Perlow, the sole speaker at this week's hearing to oppose the bill.
In her testimony, Perlow urged legislators to refer the issue to voters.
And that's what the Legislature should do.
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 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. 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 said that she plans to continue the moratorium, but hasn't taken much of an active role on the issue.
Oregon hasn't executed a prisoner since May 1997; the state has 32 men and one woman on death row.
There is merit to some of the arguments against the death penalty: There's little doubt that capital punishment is not fairly or consistently applied. It's expensive as well: A 2016 study by the Lewis & Clark Law School and Seattle University concluded that the costs associated with the death penalty are nearly twice as much as those for life sentences.
In the hearing this week, Stephen Kanter, a former dean and retired professor at Lewis & Clark Law School, argued that the state should stop supporting a broken and costly system that rarely results in executions, and called capital punishment "a cruel deception" on the families of victims and the public.
It's very possible that the opinions of Oregonians about the death penalty have changed since that 1984 initiative. But the only way to find out for sure is to ask them. The Legislature should call the question. (mm)