Gov. Kate Brown plans to convene lawmakers next month in a bid to end outcry over recent far-reaching changes to Oregon’s death penalty laws.
Facing blowback from district attorneys and crime victim groups — and with the approval of even the new law’s chief proponents — Brown signaled Wednesday that she’ll call a narrowly focused special session in September. Legislators are already scheduled to be in Salem from Sept. 16 to Sept. 18 to conduct routine business.
“I am willing to support a legislative session,” Brown said. “Given the seriousness of the issues that we’re dealing with and the impact on victims and families, I think it’s critically important that there be clarity about the law.”
Brown made clear her support is contingent on lawmakers bringing forth a proposal and getting “the votes to make it happen.”
“Should that be accomplished, I will call a special session before the end of September,” she said.
The session would be aimed at correcting elements of Senate Bill 1013, which sought to reduce use of the death penalty in Oregon. By amending the definition of aggravated murder, the state’s only capital crime, the bill narrowed the situations in which prosecutors can seek the death penalty.
Crimes eligible for a death sentence under the bill include: premeditated murder of a child younger than 14; premeditated murder of a law enforcement officer; terrorist attacks that kill at least two people; and murders in prison by someone previously convicted of murder.
In urging passage of SB 1013 earlier this year, lawmakers insisted repeatedly that it would not be retroactive, implying it would have no impact on old cases. But that may not be accurate — a Washington County judge recently deemed a former death row inmate ineligible for the death penalty.
The defendant in that case, Martin Johnson, had previously been convicted of raping and murdering a 15-year-old girl in 1998, but was granted a new trial by the Oregon Supreme Court. Under the new law, the crime Johnson is accused of committing would not qualify as aggravated murder.
The ruling led lawyers with the Oregon Department of Justice to reexamine their understanding of SB 1013, and acknowledge in an Aug. 9 email that the department had misled state prosecutors about the bill’s likely impacts. The Oregonian has reported that this new understanding could have far-reaching implications for Oregon’s death row inmates.
In response, the state’s district attorneys, who opposed the bill, called on lawmakers to make changes.
The revelation also spurred reaction from the bill’s biggest legislative champions, state Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, and Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland.
Prozanski announced that he’d never intended the bill to be so sweeping, and called on the governor to convene a special session.
Williamson, on the other hand, said the law is working as intended. She said the new definition of aggravated murder should be used when inmates are granted new trials or sentencing hearings, and says the law is not retroactive because it cannot change the outcomes for defendants who have satisfied all of their options for appeal and post-conviction relief.
Despite that stance, Williamson sent a letter to Brown and legislative leadership over the weekend signaling she would support a special session.
“I made a commitment to the family of one of the victims impacted this week that I would inform each of you that I would support Senator Prozanski’s efforts to change the bill he drafted,” Williamson wrote, even as she defended her stance on the bill.
She added that she would use a special session to demand increased funding for victims of domestic and sexual violence — a move some viewed as disingenuous and which Brown said extends beyond the scope of a special session.
Asked Wednesday how much blame her office shouldered for the confusion behind the SB 1013, Brown told reporters there were “a lot of people involved in this bill. I think we all share some responsibility.”
Assuming a special session is convened, it would be Brown’s second as governor. In May 2018, she called a one-day special session for lawmakers to tweak Oregon’s tax code.