Guest Column, Bend Bulletin
August 30, 2021
Race has played a role in Oregon politics and the law in Deschutes County, and not just a century ago. In what is deemed by some to be a great “reckoning,” many Americans are examining their histories with race.
I grew up in Oregon. If it weren’t for my parents’ involvement in the early civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, I might never have met a Black person until I was older, like many Oregonians.
One of my first cases as the No. 2 lawyer in the Deschutes County District Attorney’s Office (when I served in that job from 1990-94) was the murder of Lynn Oliverio, a Bend woman who worked downtown and whose only mistake was using the rail line as a shortcut to work. On Nov. 9, 1989, Robert Fort robbed, raped and murdered her, and then fled by hopping on a train. Good police work tracked down a piece of jewelry he had stolen and hocked. He was caught in the Midwest and brought back to Bend for trial.
The case was horrific. The victim was blameless, and Fort ’s crime was particularly cruel and vicious.
The crime and his previous record clearly made Fort a good candidate for the death penalty, which Oregon had reinstated just five years earlier.
My boss, then -DA Mike Dugan, made clear the decision was mine.
I had bitterly opposed the death penalty while growing up but had gradually changed my mind as I worked as a prosecutor. I decided to offer Fort a deal — a life sentence — which he accepted.
I made the offer in no small part because Fort was a Black man, and at the time Deschutes County had the smallest percentage of Black residents of any of the midsized or larger counties in Oregon.
Without question his jury would have been all white.
In all the subsequent trials I led in Deschutes County, I found the jurors to be intelligent, thoughtful and more diverse than I expected — and certainly more diverse than I expected at this first murder trial there.
But as the person with the power to decide whether the gate to the death penalty should be unlocked for Fort, I had misgivings. I had read about racist juries in the South acquitting sheriffs of murdering civil rights workers and similar horrors. Given the power of the state, I decided to err on the side of caution.
No part of America is free of racism, but Oregon was not founded, as some claim, as some sort of “white paradise.” Until 1987 the state motto was “The Union,” fighting words in 1859 when Oregon was admitted and just before the Confederacy declared war on the United States. The Oregon territorial governor, Joseph Lane, was a southerner and a die-hard racist. But more Oregonians of the era were Northerners who detested slavery. If a slave owner brought a slave into Oregon, that slave was then free, years before the 13th Amendment. When that amendment was debated, immortalized in the 2012 movie “Lincoln,” Congress was deeply divided. Yet the Democratic Senator from Oregon, James Nesmith, who represented a party that defended slavery, cast his vote to free the slaves, one of only two Democrats in the U.S. Senate to do so.
You want and need a district attorney who reflects the values of the community but ultimately is loyal to the law, not to the crowd or the moment. Over the next year Deschutes County voters will have the chance to put the DA’s office back on the right track, from which it strayed about 6 years ago.
History surrounds us. It is the preface, and sometimes an explanation about where we are as a people and a nation. But it shouldn’t be a yoke that can be weaponized to stifle debate.
We would do well to heed Lincoln’s admonition in his first inaugural to “heed the better angels of our nature.”
read the column on the Bulletin's website.
JOSHUA MARQUIS on
criminal justice, animal welfare, and the nature of the relationship between popular culture and the law.
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