Oregon Legislature to Consider Death Penalty Abolition

Oregon state capitol building
Oregon state capitol building / Wikimedia Commons
March 6, 2019

A proposal introduced Monday by Democrats and one Republican in the Oregon state House of Representatives would effectively abolish the death penalty by restricting its use only to convicted terrorists.

The bill, H.B. 3268, would limit aggravated murder convictions to those situations in which two or more persons are killed in a terrorist attack, the Oregonian reported. Other crimes currently considered aggravated murder — like homicides in which the victim being a child or a police officer, or murdering someone while committing another violent crime — would be reclassified as first-degree murder, carrying a maximum penalty of life without parole.

A finding of aggravating circumstances has been required for capital punishment since 1976, but states largely have discretion to determine what constitutes an aggravating factor. Some states have used this fact as a loophole to define almost any murder as potentially aggravated, but Oregon is going the opposite route and using it to narrow the death penalty's applicability to the point of de facto abolition.

State Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D.) is the bill's author; he's rallied ten members of the House to his cause, including Republican Rep. Ronald Noble.

"I think generally people support doing away with the death penalty," Greenlick told the Oregonian. "I know it's problematically applied and it's extraordinarily expensive."

Greenlick's bill cannot do away with the death penalty altogether, however, because a state referendum enshrined it in the state constitution in 1984. The House bill therefore represents a continuation of Oregon lawmakers acting to limit the death penalty without consulting the state's populace: in 2011, Gov. John Kitzhaber (D.) implemented a moratorium on its use, which current Gov. Kate Brown (D.) carried over when she took office.

"Any change should be done in a transparent manner and should be decided by the voters," Beth Heckert, president of the Oregon District Attorneys Association, told the Oregonian.

Like many states, Oregon has not used the death penalty in recent years—the last execution took place in 1997. There are currently 30 convicted prisoners languishing on the state's death row.

The Oregon bill is just the latest in a bevy of efforts by state lawmakers to abolish the death penalty. The Wyoming State Senate recently voted against a house proposal to do so; but bills are still pending in states including New Hampshire and Kentucky. And in Washington state, the state Supreme Court recently found the state's death penalty unconstitutional as applied.