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New law may take death penalty and aggravated murder charges off table in Charles Vernon case

Charles Vernon, one of three defendants charged in the 2016 death of Apache Hightower, may now face lesser charges after Gov. Kate Brown signed into law new standards for aggravated murder charges.Vernon

Vernon, Jesse Lane and Stephanie Toney were implicated in the homicide of 24-year-old Hightower, a mother of one, in September 2016. All three defendants were indicted in October 2016.

Vernon was charged with three counts of aggravated murder, two counts of murder, and additional charges of kidnapping, illegal firearm possession, hindering prosecution and strangulation after Hightower's body was found in Columbia County.

Senate Bill 1013 was passed by the Oregon House and Senate in June and signed by Brown on Aug. 1. The bill redefines aggravated murder such that some crimes which were previously considered aggravated murder will now be considered murder in the first

degree.

Crimes previously considered murder will be defined as murder in the second degree once the law takes effect Sept. 29.

The aggravated murder charges against Vernon were filed on the basis that Hightower was killed "in an effort to conceal the commission of the crime of Kidnapping in the First Degree," according to the indictment.

Currently, murder committed in an effort to cover up a crime can be tried as aggravated murder. But once the new law takes effect, that won't be considered aggravated murder.

With Vernon's trial set for March 2020, the case will proceed under the new law.

"Defense counsel's position is that SB 1013 reduces the aggravated murder charges as alleged to murder in the first degree, thus entirely removing the death penalty as a sentencing option. The state disagrees with the defense on that issue," Columbia County District Attorney Jeff Auxier wrote to Columbia County Circuit Judge Ted Grove last month.

People convicted of aggravated murder can receive the death penalty in Oregon, though the state has not executed anyone since 1997. Under Brown and her predecessor, former Gov. John Kitzhaber, the state has had a moratorium on executions.

Under current state law, juries determining if the defendant will receive a life sentence or the death penalty can factor in the risk of the defendant committing more violent offenses. Once the new law takes effect, juries will not be permitted to consider that factor during sentencing.

Lane, Hightower's ex-boyfriend, pleaded guilty to one count of murder in October 2017 and was sentenced to life in prison. Lane had also faced aggravated murder charges, which could have resulted in the death penalty.

Toney, Vernon's girlfriend at the time of the Hightower's death, pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide in January 2018 after the aggravated murder charges against her were dismissed. Toney still awaits sentencing on the remaining charges, which Auxier previously said would come after Vernon's trial.

SB 1013 has confused prosecutors throughout the state. In recent weeks, conflicting interpretations of the legislation have presented different assessments of how the bill impacts pending court cases.

"The bill is not a model of clarity," Auxier wrote in a July 31 letter filed in the court.

In a letter sent to prosecutors Aug. 9 and obtained by the Oregonian/OregonLive earlier this week, Oregon Solicitor General Benjamin Gutman explained that the newest analysis of the bill showed it would impact aggravated murder cases already in motion and appealed cases.

At press time, Auxier had not responded to requests for comment on how his office will proceed with the case.

Both Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, and Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, voted against SB 1013.


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