2 / GUTTING THE DEATH PENALTY
After gutting Measure 11 (see Part 1), next up was Oregon's death penalty, in existence in its present form by two popular votes, first in 1977, then again in 1984.
In its extreme confusion, SB 1013 was either the worst bill ever drafted or a brilliantly worded time bomb intended to destroy Oregon's death penalty. Led by now politically radioactive Jennifer Williamson (who at the time thought she could have her pick of Secretary of State or Attorney General), Williamson knew she'd never get the two-thirds majority to overturn the vote of the people. She had a new plan. In theory she would technically amend and greatly limiting capital punishment. In reality, her goal was to cripple the death penalty, limiting it to circumstances that were unlikely to ever occur.
Murdering a judge or juror is no longer a capital crime. Nor is killing four people as part of a family slaughter. The new law allows prosecution for terrorist murders, but only if the terrorists are part of an organized group, like Al Qaeda, and kill two or more people. Under this new definition, Timothy McVeigh wouldn't qualify for capital murder. Nor Anthony Garner, whom I convicted in 2002 of torturing a woman to death, his second murder conviction.
In fact, of the 34 people on Oregon's death row, only three would be eligible under the new rules.
Filed at the last minute, SB 1013 received little attention or discussion. Concerns that the bill would be retroactive were met with on-the-record assurances by both Williamson and Solicitor General Ben Gutman that the bill absolutely was not.
The bill didn't reach a vote until ten days before sine die. It passed the House 33 to 26. A week later, on June 29, just two days before the session ended, SB 1013 passed the Senate by a 17 to 10 vote. It was signed gleefully by the Governor in a private, invitation only ceremony, attended by legislators who engineered it and leading opponents of capital punishment.
Senators voting NO: Baertschiger Jr, Bentz, Boles, Hansell, Heard, Johnson, Knopp, Olsen, Thatcher, Thomsen
Representatives voting NO: Barker, Barreto, Boles, Bonham, Boshart Davis, Clem, Drazan, Evans, Findley, Hayden, Helt, Leif, Lewis, McKeown, Meek, Mitchell, Nearman, Post, Reschke, Smith DB, Smith G, Sprenger, Wallan, Wilson, Witt, Zika
THEN things started getting interesting. Just a month later, in July 2020, the Oregonian's Noelle Crombie reported that despite specific assurances from, Ben Gutman, AG Ellen Rosenblum's top lawyer, and assurances from the bill's sponsor, Jennifer Williamson, the law, now part of state code, was in fact retroactive. Any of the 30-odd people on death row could seek to overturn their death sentence decades after their convictions.
Since several of the murderers were convicted before 1991, there was no "life without parole" option. A new hearing could immediately release them from prison. Randy Guzek, for example, was sentenced to death by four different juries, had already served 32 years, and could conceivably walk out of prison.
There was great gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. Even the Oregonian's editorial board, which was now opposing capital punishment after of supporting it, called for a Special Session.
Several prominent lawmakers wrung their hands. In late August Gov. Kate Brown said she would call a Special Session to fix this injustice.
It never happened.
Special Sessions are being called almost monthly now. But in the midst of a closed Capitol and COVID-19, there just wasn't the time or energy to fix their "little mistake."
JOSHUA MARQUIS on
criminal justice and the nature of the relationship between popular culture and the law.
See the Archives page for posts prior to January 2019.