Special session looms to fix changes to death penalty law
By Aubrey Wieber
EO Media Group reporter
Gov. Kate Brown plans to call a special session by the end of September to resolve what she says is an error in a bill lawmakers passed this year to restrict use of the death penalty.
Senate Bill 1013 significantly limited when prosecutors can charge someone with aggravated murder, the only charge in Oregon where the death penalty can be sought. Under SB 1013, which Brown signed into law, fewer crimes would trigger an aggravated murder charge: the killing of a child younger than 14; killing two or more people in a terrorist act; killing a police officer or if someone with an aggravated murder conviction murders again.
During legislative hearings, lawmakers said the bill would not apply to previous cases in which offenders already had been sentenced. However, the Oregon Department of Justice recently said that the law could potentially be applied to the 30 inmates on Oregon's death row who can still appeal. That means, if a death row inmate were granted a new trial on appeal, SB 1013 could bar prosecutors from again sentencing them to death.
During debate on the bill, lawmakers said that wouldn't be the case.
The lack of clarity led state Sen. Floyd Prozanski (D-Eugene) to call for a special session to change the bill. Prozanski carried the bill on the Senate floor.
State Rep. Jennifer Williamson (D-Portland) did so in the House. When the controversy over the bill began, Williamson lobbied against a special session, saying the bill will work as intended. She changed her tune in a letter sent to Brown and lawmakers, saying she would support a special session.
Last week, Brown said there was some confusion about what the term "retroactive" meant.
"It is really clear that there is a misunderstanding about the intent of the words in Senate Bill 1013," Brown said. "And, from my perspective, given the seriousness of the issues that we're dealing with and the impact on victims and families, I think it's critically important that there be clarity about the law and in particular, this law."
Brown is calling on Prozanski to draft the fix and get enough support to pass a reform to the law.
'Rushing' a fix for the law
Minutes after Brown made her announcement, though, some Republicans voiced skepticism. The legislative session ended in late June on a contentious note between the parties after Senate Republicans walked out twice to prevent that chamber from taking votes.
"The last thing we should do in this situation is quickly rush something through a compressed process," House Republican Leader Carl Wilson of Grants Pass said in a statement. "We do not want to compound the existing mistake by rushing a 'fix' through a day-long session in a hastily assembled committee."
Wilson suggested the best course of action could be to repeal the bill altogether in a special session.
"Victims, their families, law enforcement and the courts deserve clarity and closure on this matter," Wilson said. "That would also allow ample time before the 2020 regular session to analyze what, if anything, might otherwise be done on new legislation regarding the death penalty."
Brown spoke with Prozanski and legislative leaders, whom she said expect to work with stakeholders and lawmakers to write language for "this very narrow fix" and get enough votes to pass it.
"The session would be focused on this narrow issue," Brown said.
She added that one of her staff members reviewed the bill and relevant legislative hearings, and her office talked with legislators and other interested parties.
When asked repeatedly how much responsibility she bears for signing the bill, she didn't directly answer.
"Look, there were dozens of lawyers involved in the drafting and the crafting of the legislation," Brown said. "They all thought they knew what 'retroactivity' meant. It turns out that Department of Justice has clarified that and I think it needs to be fixed. … there were a lot of people involved in this legislation. I think we all share some responsibility."
Lawmakers already are scheduled to convene in Salem for a series of interim meetings this week. Brown said she thought the special session could take less than a day.
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