Ezra's Law introduced in Oregon House of Representatives
The Jefferson County Courthouse lobby was packed at 1 p.m. Monday, Jan. 27. Many were wearing #TeamEzra shirts, and there were hugs and excited chatter as three people, including his mother, Kaytlynne Rogerson, hung a banner with pictures of Ezra Thomas, a 4 ½-year-old who had just had an Oregon House Bill introduced that bears his name.
The crowd was there for the unveiling of Ezra's Law by Jefferson County District Attorney and Oregon Rep. Daniel Bonham.
"We thank you for coming out and showing interest," Leriche said. The legislation "hopefully will take care of a gap that we see in our law. … With us today is Ezra. Ezra is the namesake of our bill."
The goal of Ezra's Law is to create longer sentences for people who cause permanent physical injury to their victim. That's defined as an injury that "permanently and significantly impairs" the victim's cognitive functioning, vision, hearing or ability to walk breathe, eat or move their limbs. The perpetrator would have to be at least 18 years old and have committed first- or second-degree assault, attempted murder or aggravated attempted murder.
Many of those categories apply to Ezra, who was injured at the hands of his mother's then-boyfriend, Josue Mendoza-Melo, who pleaded no contest to attempted aggravated murder and first-degree criminal mistreatment Sept. 12.
In addition to Ezra and his grandmother and foster parent, Tina Jorgensen, Little Roy Fast and Jessica Haynes were also at the event.
In 2013, Little Roy had a permanent brain injury at the hands of his mother's boyfriend in Aumsville, Oregon. Today Little Roy is 7 and is being raised by his grandparents, Elizabeth and Roy Crouch.
Leriche said Haynes "was a victim of domestic violence, and she was shot." He described her as a "living walking, talking miracle."
Ezra's Law found its birth with Jorgensen first sat down with Leriche to find out how long Mendoza-Melo would spend behind bars.
The maximum penalty — if he was convicted of the most serious charge — was 120 months in prison. Lesser charges would have had 70 or 90 months in prison.
So the victim receives a "a lifetime affliction," but the perpetrator can come out of prison and have a normal life, Leriche said.
"To her, that was the most unfair thing," Leriche said. "She took action."
And then, he said, Jorgensen found a legislator that cared in newly appointed Rep. Daniel Bonham.
Jorgensen contacted him in August, and they met in October, he said.
"Criminal justice has not been a big part of my past," he said.
He talked with Leriche and Crook County District Attorney Wade Whiting. At first, he said, they thought the law should only apply to child victims. "Until we heard Jessica's story," he said. "Her life's permanently changed as well."
He said the law is about providing "a little peace" to victims.
Leriche also thanked County Commissioner Mae Huston and Jefferson County Undersheriff Marc Heckathorn, who is Haynes' brother-in-law, for coming to the event.
In Salem, Leriche said, "the victims are an afterthought."
He then offered each of the families a chance to speak.
"It hasn't really just impacted me," Haynes said. "It's impacted my whole family."
If her parents hadn't taken over her care, she would have be in a nursing home, she said.
"I had to learn how to walk all over again."
Her father, David Haynes, said he was 70 and ready to retire from his full-time job when his daughter was shot.
He knew she would need insurance, so he worked another five years.
"It's been hard," he said, "but we make do."
He thinks perpetrators "should suffer far more than what they do," he said.
Elizabeth Crouch told Little Roy's story.
He was 6 months old when his mother's boyfriend volunteered to babysit. The man assaulted Little Roy, Crouch said. The evidence shows the man picked Little Roy up by his ankle, swing him, "and bashed him against something."
The only thing he did right was taking the infant to the hospital several hours later, Crouch said.
Little Roy's brain was swollen, and his skull had to be cut.
"We were told there is no hope," Crouch said. "As you can see, seven years later we have a miracle. God gave us a miracle."
Little Roy has had strokes and surgeries and will soon have the right hemisphere of his brain removed.
Crouch is grateful for her "ray of sunshine," she said. "But the guy was sentenced to 105 months."
The maximum he could have served was 120 months, and the judge gave him a lower sentence because had been in the Army.
"I'm so proud of Tina and the whole team," Crouch said. "And Jessica, look at Jessica. She's beautiful."
One of Crouch's fears is that when the man who injured her grandson gets out of prison, he will still be young enough to find a woman with a baby or to have a child. If he were older, she thinks that would be better.
Then Jorgensen spoke.
She had a 25-year career in banking for taking on Ezra's care.
"That changed everything," she said.
Like the Crouches, Jorgensen was told Ezra would not live through the night. When he did, she was told he would always be in a vegetative state and the family was encouraged to take him off life support.
That's not the case. Brittany Fowler, his caregiver, said Ezra is moving his legs and arms. He laughs and smiles now.
"But he's far from that little boy that he was born to be," Jorgensen said. He has seizures and eats through a feeding tube. He has a shunt that can only be serviced in Portland. She said he should be happy and playing. "… His life changed that day."
And she wants justice for victims like Ezra.
"He got 12 years — 12 years for giving Ezra a life sentence," she said.
The law, she said, "won't help any of us, but it will help our future." She hopes it will deter others from abusing children.
Doctors say Ezra will probably not live into his teens.
"In 12 years, for Ezra, he'll mostly likely be dead," Jorgensen said. "Where is the justice?"
"I think all of us want to see the narrative change," Leriche said. He said now criminals are put first and victims are forgotten.
"We put (victims) first and we take care of them first before anyone else. … This is not the life they chose."
Under the proposed law, offenders could be sentenced to up to 25 years if permanent injury resulted from their crime, although a judge could lessen the sentence.
"We recognize that not every case is the same," he said.
He suspects the law will not be used often. He said Jefferson County might have an applicable case every five years or so.
A similar bill has failed in the Oregon Legislature before. Leriche thinks Ezra's Law has a better chance.
"We got Daniel Bonham on our side this time, and maybe more importantly we've got Tina and we've got Liz and we've got Jessica," he said.
One person asked Haynes how long the man who shot her was sentenced for."Five years eight months," she said to a groan from the crowd.
David Haynes said later that Jessica "was told when she was in ICU that she would never breathe" on her own. He was told she would be in a vegetative state. She is now legally blind and has one prosthetic eye.
"It would've felt a lot better" if the man who shot her had had a longer sentence, she said, adding that her family was disappointed that the sentence "did not fit the crime."
To follow Ezra's story and the bill, search #TeamEzra on Facebook.
Bonham is allowed to introduce two bills during the Legislature's short session, and he said Ezra's Law is his top priority.
"When you hear the story, it's just compelling," he said.
When he met Jorgensen and Leriche, they asked him how long he thought Mendoza-Melo should be sentenced for without showing him the sentencing matrix. He said 20 years.
"It led to a conversation," he said. "… I don't know that there's any penalty that's truly just."
He said he is cautiously optimistic that the bill has a chance, despite the short session.
Bonham is a Republican, and he has a Democratic co-sponsor in Carla Piluso from Portland, as well as support in the Oregon Senate.
The bill will be assigned to a committee, and its supporters will lobby that committee for a hearing. Bonham said that they have one week to schedule a hearing and a work session if the bill is to survive this session. If the bill doesn't make it out of committee, Bonham said he will reintroduce if it he is reelected in November. If not, "we will find somebody to champion this bill," he said.
Jorgensen credits with Leriche with coming this far.
"I have the story, but Steve Leriche gently nudged me," she said. "I think without him that I wouldn't be standing here today."
Leriche predicted her response.
"She would tell you I pushed her," he said. "But she she was ready to be pushed."He said Jorgensen is the right messenger for the bill because she is beloved in the community and has the energy to take it on.
"I told Tina that she should use all her energy and emotions … to do something good with it."
"I'm pretty excited," Jorgensen said. "I'm so happy that we had Jessica and that we had Elizabeth and Little Roy to tell their stories."
Seeing Little Roy, who had the same prognosis as Ezra but is walking, talking and going to school, was especially encouraging. At Doernbecher Children's Hospital, Ezra's family knew of three babies that died after they were shaken.
"The ones that were hurt by others usually passed away," Jorgensen said.
She was thankful for everyone that came to the event.
"It always surprises me how many people show up," she said, adding that she is proud of where she lives and the support for Ezra.
For now, she is on standby to testify before the Legislature if the bill gets a hearing. She's hoping for a crowd with #TeamEzra shirts to come in support.
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