SALEM, Ore. (AP) — The Oregon Supreme Court struck down the death sentence of an inmate in a ruling Thursday that found lawmakers had fundamentally altered “prevailing societal standards” for executions with a 2019 law change.
Oregon Public Broadcasting reports that experts believe the decision could eliminate the death sentence for all inmates facing the penalty
State lawmakers passed SB 1013 in 2019. The bill narrowed what crimes qualify as aggravated murder — the only charge that carries capital punishment in Oregon.
While the law change included a provision that did not make it retroactive, the court’s ruling appears to do that, relying on a section of the state’s Constitution that prohibits disproportionate punishments.
The death penalty has a turbulent history in Oregon, and it has been abolished and reinstated several times over since 1900. After the Oregon Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in 1981, voters reinstated capital punishment in 1984.
Despite the fact that capital punishment remains law in Oregon, the last execution to take place was in 1997. In 2011, Governor John Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on executions, which Governor Kate Brown has upheld through her terms.
In 2019, the Oregon legislature passed Senate Bill 1013, which redefined the state's concept of aggravated murder so that only a handful of the most reprehensible crimes would qualify for the death penalty: killings motivated by terrorism, the murder of children 14 or younger, killings by an incarcerated person with a previous "aggravated murder" sentence, and pre-meditated killings of police or corrections officers.
Sponsors of the bill said that they did not intend it to be retroactive, but it almost immediately proved to be the basis for legal challenges from death row inmates who argued that they were no longer eligible for the death penalty. Despite misgivings about the new law on both sides of the aisle, Governor Brown did not follow through on calling a special legislative session to pass a "fix."
At least some legal experts expect that Thursday's ruling from the Oregon Supreme Court will cement earlier opinions that many death row inmates' sentences can be overturned and re-sentenced.