SALEM — A bill that would defang Oregon’s death penalty without a statewide vote got its first hearing before a Senate committee Monday, drawing testimony that was overwhelmingly supportive of the novel approach.
Senate Bill 1013 would leave the little-used death penalty in the Oregon Constitution — only voters can take it out. The bill instead would sharply narrow the definition of aggravated murder, the only crime punishable by death in Oregon.
Today, aggravated murder can encompass a variety of crimes, including murders of multiple people, torture, and killing a child or law enforcement officer.
Under the change being proposed in SB 1013, the crime would only apply to acts of terrorism in which two or more people are killed. The remaining factors that are currently classified as aggravated murder would fall under a new crime in Oregon statute, murder in the first degree.
If passed, the bill could make it unlikely that inmates would be sentenced to death in the future. Unlike a similar proposal in the House, the 30 Oregon inmates currently on death row would remain there.
Supporters of the bill on Monday testified that it would save the state millions of dollars currently spent in the resource-intensive death penalty process, which includes expensive appeals that can drag on for years.
A study published in 2016 concluded that death penalty cases cost from $800,000 to upwards of $1 million more than cases where a defendant is sentenced to life.
Proponents also argued the law would spare victims’ families years of hearings with little closure, and pointed out that the death penalty is little-used as is. Even before then-Gov. John Kitzhaber announced a moratorium on capital punishment in 2011 — a stay that has continued under Gov. Kate Brown — it had been 14 years since an Oregon inmate was executed.
Just two inmates have been executed in Oregon in the last 50 years, and both of them had given up fighting their sentences.
“Regardless of your stance on the death penalty, the Oregon system is failing you,” said state Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland. Supporters, she said, may believe that the punishment “offers victims and families certainty and justice, but what we do know is it doesn’t do that.”
Among the most impassioned supporters of the bill was Stephen Kanter, emeritus dean of Lewis & Clark Law School, who has spent decades fighting capital punishment in Oregon.
He said the question of what crimes should be punishable by death is unquestionably a decision that should fall to lawmakers.
“We are talking about the Legislature doing its job,” Kanter said. “Trying to figure out, after careful attention, what are the right definitions for aggravated murder that should subject, in a rare case, an individual to the possibility of the death penalty.”
In opposition was Lane County District Attorney Patricia Perlow. Perlow said she hadn’t come to the hearing to argue for the death penalty, but that the question of capital punishment should be put before voters.
Perlow recounted grisly crimes that led her office to send three inmates to death row. Two of the crimes included torture of children.
“These are aggravated murders,” Perlow said. “There are three people on death row out of Lane County because of those heinous acts.”
Perlow also suggested that the changes in SB 1013 would effectively end capital punishment in Oregon.
“In my 30 years of prosecution, I’ve never prosecuted a terrorist,” she said. “I’d suggest that if we had a terrorist in our community, it probably would be prosecuted federally. If your goal is to eliminate the death penalty or the circumstances under which it could be considered, let’s have an honest conversation about that and refer it to the voters.”
Supporters of the bill concede asking voters to repeal the death penalty could be difficult. The state has a fickle history on the issue, enacting and repealing capital punishment three separate times before the most recent enactment in 1984.
But SB 1013 might face an insurmountable hurdle precisely because it doesn’t ask voters to decide. House Speaker Tina Kotek has said repeatedly she believes the question of capital punishment should be decided by a public vote. If the bill passes out of the Senate, Kotek could block its path in the House.
Beyond changing the type of crime punishable by death in Oregon, SB 1013 also modifies the questions jurors must answer before ordering a death sentence. The state currently asks jurors to decide whether there’s a probability a defendant will be violent in the future. Opponents say that’s an impossible prediction, and point to studies suggesting juries often get the question wrong.
“We fixed the problem with the Boeing planes by grounding those planes until we were certain,” said Jeff Ellis, a Portland attorney and board member of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, who helped with SB 1013. “And yet decades have passed and we have not fixed the problem of [asking about] future dangerousness.”