Gazette Times: Editorial: Legislature goes almost all the way on death penalty

Gazette Times: Editorial: Legislature goes almost all the way on death penalty

Jul 3, 2019 It was probably inevitable, considering the dramatic way that the last couple of weeks of the legislative session played out. With so much focus on the Republican senators' walkout and the death of the cap-and-trade bill, a number of relatively high-profile measures were passed that normally would have earned more attention.

A good example is the bill that dramatically restricts the death penalty in Oregon, Senate Bill 1013, which passed the Senate by a 17-9 vote on Saturday and headed to Gov. Kate Brown for a signature. (Among the mid-valley's senators, Democrat Sara Gelser voted for the measure; Republican Fred Girod, who was still in Texas in the wake of the walkout, did not vote on Saturday, although he had voted against an earlier version of the bill. In an earlier vote in the House, mid-valley Democratic representatives Dan Rayfield and Marty Wilde voted for the measure, while Republicans Shelly Boshart Davis, Mike Nearman and Sherrie Sprenger voted against it.)

Since voters approved adding the death penalty to the Oregon Constitution in 1984, it would require another vote of the people to eliminate capital punishment. But no one in the Legislature or elsewhere appears to be willing to refer that issue to voters, which is a shame.

Senate Bill 1013 limits the number of crimes that can be punished by death. Capital punishment is restricted to cases of aggravated murder; the bill removes certain crimes from the list of offenses that can be charged as aggravated murder. Crimes that remain on the list include terrorist acts that kill two or more people as well as the killing of police officers and children younger than age 14. The death penalty also is an option when an inmate in prison for homicide commits another murder.

But other cases that used to be considered aggravated murder, such as killing more than one person or killing someone during a rape or a robbery, would be reclassified as first-degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The legislation also removes 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 removes that question, which is fine: It's an unfair and unscientific duty to ask jurors to tackle.

Realistically, the passage of the bill likely won't change much along Oregon's death row. The state of Oregon hasn't executed anyone since 1997. Gov. John Kitzhaber put a moratorium on executions in 2011, and then launched a halfhearted effort to persuade legislators to revisit the issue of whether the state should ban capital punishment. Brown has continued the moratorium on using the death penalty but hasn't seemed particularly interested in pursuing the issue.

It's hard to blame Kitzhaber and Brown much for their reluctance to pursue the issue, given the mixed signals Oregon voters have sent over the years. Capital punishment was outlawed by voters in 1914 and then reenacted in 1978. Three years later, the state Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional, paving the way for the 1984 initiative in which voters reaffirmed capital punishment.

Since then, though, the topic has rarely has been revisited in Oregon, and the gubernatorial moratoriums have had the effect of more or less sweeping the debate about capital punishment under the rug.

Senate Bill 1013 chips away at the use of the death penalty in Oregon. But the time has come to grapple with the bigger question. It's very possible that the opinions of Oregonians toward capital punishment have changed since that 1984 initiative, especially considering the intriguing twists and turns that the national debate has taken in the 35 years since then. But there's only one way to find out for sure. Let's take this question to the voters.

Mike McNulty




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