Decision not to redo death penalty law met with anger, joy

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Republican lawmakers were left fuming and justice reform advocates elated after Oregon's governor decided against calling a special session of the Legislature to have lawmakers review a new law narrowing death penalty cases.

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Despite assurances by Democratic lawmakers during the 2019 legislative session that the measure, which takes effect on Sept. 29, does not apply to crimes committed before that date, a top Department of Justice lawyer subsequently said it applies to cases sent back for retrial or new sentencing hearings and current cases awaiting trial.

"This bill was passed under false pretenses and it should be fixed," GOP state Sen. Denyc Boles said on Twitter. " This is wrong."

Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a Democrat from Eugene who helped get the bill passed, had urged a special session of the Legislature to clarify the scope of the new law.

Gov. Kate Brown said late Wednesday that as much as she wanted a special session there would be none because stakeholders and legislators had failed to craft language to fix bill and line up enough votes to pass the redo.

Prozanski said Thursday there were enough votes in the Senate but not in the House.

The new state law narrows the definition of aggravated murder, the only crime eligible for a death sentence, to killing two or more people as an act of organized terrorism; killing a child younger than 14 intentionally and with premeditation; killing another person while locked incarcerated for a previous murder; or killing a police, correctional or probation officer.

After Solicitor General Benjamin Gutman wrote in August that the new law was retroactive in some cases, a few lawmakers felt it would be problematic to reword the bill, Prozanski said.

"Basically they think that we're now putting people in the position that they are still subject to execution by making that fix," Prozanski said in a phone interview. "And so, on a moral level, some of my colleagues said that they would have great difficulty doing that."

The ACLU of Oregon said it's pleased at the outcome.

"This means that the new law that limits the application of the death penalty in Oregon will not be watered down," the group said.

The last time a person was executed involuntarily in Oregon was in 1962. There were two executions in the 1990s of inmates who waived their appeals and asked that the execution be carried out.

In November 2011, then Gov. John Kitzhaber announced a moratorium on executions in Oregon, a stance that Brown has maintained.

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Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky

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