Guest column by Joshua Marquis
Bend Bulletin, 3 November 2021
The initiative and referendum system was introduced by an obscure Oregon politician, Willian U’Ren. It’s been copied across the nation, allowing the people to decide important issues through direct votes.
It was used in 1914 to vote out the death penalty that Oregon had adopted shortly after the Civil War, in 1864. In 1920, voters reinstated it, and it stayed in effect until 1964, when Oregon became the last state, to date, to abolish the death penalty by vote of the people. In 1978 and again in 1984 voters made clear they wanted the penalty back.
Since then there have been many attempts to get voters to abolish capital punishment — all have failed, including two efforts in blue California in the last decade, and one in red Nebraska. This is not a classic liberal/conservative or Democrat/Republican issue.
Death row was abolished by Gov. Kate Brown earlier this year, and this month the Oregon Supreme Court reversed all but perhaps four of the 31 remaining inmates who had received a death sentence. The court based its decision, in theory, on 2019 legislation in Senate Bill 1013, sponsored by avowed enemies of the death penalty who knew they could never muster the legislative votes to overturn the people. Supporters and sponsors claimed the bill was nothing more than a cleanup of a messy law, that narrowed eligible murders to a tiny number of highly improbable murders (organized terrorists killing multiple victims).
Passage of SB 1013 required a major political sleight of hand by then-Rep. Jennifer Williamson and Sen. Floyd Prozanski, who specifically promised skeptical colleagues the bill would apply only to future cases. Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum’s office and Gov. Brown joined the chorus of deceit. After SB 1013 passed, Rosenblum’s office announced: the law would be retroactive. Brown continued to equivocate, promising to call a special session to consider the matter. She never did.
Christian Longo drowned his wife and young children in Newport. Dayton Leroy Rogers is a serial killer with six known victims. Randy Guzek murdered Rod and Lois Houser in Terrebonne in 1987. He’s been sentenced to death by four different Deschutes County juries over a 22-year period. None of these killers will ever receive their sentences. The supporters of SB 1013, now law, implied those murders just weren’t “bad enough.” The Oregon Supreme Court echoed that claim by saying murders like these three “do not fall within the narrow category of conduct that can be punished by death, as opposed to lesser sentences...”
Oregon executed two men in the mid-1990s, and they were “volunteers.” Under current law, killing two or even 20 people doesn’t qualify for the death penalty unless the murder was carried out by members of an organized terrorist group.
Tim McVeigh’s killing of 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing would not qualify in Oregon.
The state Supreme Court’s decision cannot be appealed to the federal courts because its decision wasn’t based on the federal ban on cruel and unusual punishment. It was based on a state provision that is written identically to federal law, but interpreted in a way that resembles “states’ rights” — claims of the last century that allowed the depravities of slavery and various forms of discrimination.
Randy Guzek will be eligible for parole as soon as the parole board dockets his case. He’s eligible because at the time of his murders the only other sentence was life with a minimum of 30 years, and he completed his 30 about four years ago. The current district attorney showed up at the 2019 parole hearing for Mark Wilson, who was Guzek’s co-killer. John Hummel astonished the Houser family by announcing he supported granting parole for Wilson, who had agreed to a 40-year minimum.
The parole board has thus far ignored Hummel’s recommendation. Perhaps it will ignore Guzek, but the board is working with a different law now. If you don’t want to see him or the other killers released, write your district attorney and the governor.
Some people have moral, religious, or political reasons for opposing the death penalty. National polling in 2021 by Pew Research Center revealed that more than 60% of Americans continue to support the penalty.
What do Oregonians think? Why not ask them, instead of engaging in trickery and deceit?
JOSHUA MARQUIS on
criminal justice, animal welfare, and the nature of the relationship between popular culture and the law.
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