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In light of new state legislation, District Attorney says prosecution will seek true life sentence

Prosecutors no longer plan to pursue the death penalty in the case of Charles Vernon, who is charged with aggravated murder in the 2016 death of Portland's Apache Hightower.

Vernon is one of three defendants who were charged with murdering Hightower in Columbia County.

Columbia County District Attorney Jeff Auxier said in court last week that he had met with Hightower's family to discuss the death penalty in light of SB 1013, a bill passed by the state legislature that adds new limits to when the charge of aggravated murder and the death penalty can be used.

Auxier explained that Hightower's family recognized that although Oregon permits the death penalty, the long-standing moratorium on the death penalty has meant no one has been executed in the state for decades.

Under the laws currently in effect, prosecutors believed Hightower's death qualified as aggravated murder. But under SB 1013, aggravated murder can only be used in particular instances where multiple people are killed in an act of terrorism or the victims are children or law enforcement officers.

In Oregon, aggravated murder is the only murder charge that is punishable with the death penalty.

Auxier said he believes the new legislation should not apply to the current case, but after speaking with the victim's family, determined that pursuing the death penalty could involve extensive delays and appeals. Instead, Auxier said he plans to pursue a true life sentence for Vernon.

Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, helped pass SB 1013 but has since requested a special session after legislators and prosecutors expressed confusion over how the law applies to crimes that are currently being prosecuted or appealed.

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