Governor Brown signed legislation this week narrowing what homicides qualify as capital cases in Oregon, the first significant change in the state’s death penalty since voters added it to the constitution in 1984.
Oregon hasn’t executed a death row inmate in 22 years. Former Governor John Kitzhaber, who allowed the last two executions to proceed, had a change of heart and imposed a moratorium on capital executions in 2011. Brown extended the moratorium when she succeeded Kitzhaber in 2015.
Senate Bill 1013, which passed the legislature with bipartisan support, limits death penalty prosecutions to defendants who kill two or more people as an act of terrorism, intentionally and with premeditation kill a child younger than 14, kill someone while in jail for a previous murder or kill a police, correctional or probation officer.
As she signed SB 1013, Brown called the state’s death penalty dysfunctional, costly and immoral. House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, who shepherded the bill through the House, said capital case prosecutions can top $1.2 million as opposed to prosecutions for murder seeking a life sentence with no opportunity for parole that only cost $300,000.
Senator Floyd Prozanski, who held the initial hearings on the legislation, recalled he was a death penalty proponent before and after his sister was fatally shot. He said he changed his mind after studying data that showed too many death row inmates have been found innocent using DNA evidence and a disproportionate number of inmates are of color. Decades-long appeal processes, Prozanski added, prevent closure for families of murder victims.
Credit was given to Steve Kanter, dean emeritus of the Lewis & Clark Law School, who led an effort to study the cost-effectiveness of capital prosecutions. The data he and his team developed played a key role in convincing a majority of lawmakers, including conservative Republicans, to support the measure.
Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (OADP) has explored asking the legislature to refer a measure to voters to abolish the death penalty. In the course of its exploration, the idea arose of asking the legislature to revise the statutory definition of aggravated murder, with the goal of limiting capital case prosecutions and ultimately shrink the number of death row inmates.
Because the death penalty isn’t a top-of-mind issue with most voters, trying to repeal it would have invited opponents to use scare tactics. An incremental step involving legislation created an opportunity to talk about the death penalty and educate the public about its defects. The bill also gave OADP and its allies a chance to expand their coalition and recruit legislative champions.
CFM played a role in discouraging a premature repeal attempt, identifying a legislative option and lobbying it successfully. CFM conducted survey research, facilitated a group conversation that surfaced the legislative option and provided lobbying strategy and advocacy materials.
“This was a group effort with lots of dedicated heroes,” said CFM Partner Dale Penn II. “It is rare to work with so many committed people who give their time, talent and heart to a project that doesn’t put a dime in their pocket, but makes a huge difference for Oregon.”
Oregon is in sync with other states in moving away from the death penalty. Washington abolished the death penalty in 2018. New Hampshire became the 21st state to ban the death penalty earlier this year, when the senate overrode a gubernatorial veto. Four states, including Oregon, have moratoriums on death penalty executions. The most recent moratorium was declared in California.
Arizona has looked at narrowing its aggravated murder statute, but not as fundamentally as Oregon, according to the nonprofit Death Information Center.
Turning SB 1013 into law may force Brown to confront whether some existing Oregon death row inmates should have their sentences reduced to life sentences or even commuted, as pushed by the Oregon Justice Resource Center.
Progress on the death penalty is not a straight line. The Trump administration has called for a resumption of capital executions.