Oregon Governor Seeks to Restrict Death Penalty for Killing Policemen

By Victor Westerkamp

An Oregon bill that aims to narrow the definition of aggravated murder of a police officer has sparked controversy since being signed by the governor last week.

The Bill, Senate Bill 1013, which Democrat Governor Kate Brown signed last week, limits the number of cases when prosecutors can seek the death penalty. The bill, which is due to go into effect on Sept. 29, will mean a prosecutor will be able to charge a suspected cop-killer with aggravated murder only when it’s premeditated.

Patrick Yoes, chairman of the National Fraternal Order of Police, wrote a letter to Governor Brown to ask her to “repeal SB 1013 or amend it by striking the premeditation requirement for those who murder or attempt to murder a law enforcement officer.”

“Prior to the enactment of SB 1013 Aggravated Murder included the murder of any on-duty law enforcement officer—there was no requirement that the killing be premeditated,” Yoes wrote. “SB 1013 weakens this protection and … throws past and future cases of these crimes into legal uncertainty.”

The legal uncertainty Yoes refers to has to do with the governor’s former remarks that the bill would not be retroactive—it would only apply to new cases. But jurists have pointed out that death row convicts who have not yet exhausted all their means of legal appeal might still apply for retrial and thus avoid the death penalty, because prosecutors would have to drop the aggravated murder charge under the new legislation.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown speaks to media representatives in Salem, Ore., on Jan. 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

In order to fix the loopholes in the new law, Brown conceded to the criticism and now supports convening a special session on the matter.

“It is really clear that there is a misunderstanding about the intent of the words in Senate Bill 1013,” Brown said. “It’s my expectation that Sen. Prozanski (a major proponent of the bill) and others work with stakeholders and legislators around the state, frankly, to craft the language for this very narrow fix and get the votes to make it happen,” Brown said, according to the Salem Reporter.

But for the bill to smoothly go into effect in its altered form, the Democratic governor needs to rely on the cooperation of the Republican minority in the House and Senate.

“It is troubling that we are in this position because of inaccurate information provided to legislators,” House Republican Leader Carl Wilson, of Grants Pass, in a statement shortly after Brown’s remarks, The Oregonian reported. “Whether they supported or opposed the bill, all legislators were told by the advocates for the bill that this legislation would not be retroactive.”

“The last thing we should do in this situation is quickly rush something through a compressed process,” he said. He furthermore suggested “the best course of action” might be “to simply repeal the bill.”