SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said Wednesday she wants to call a special session of the Legislature because of questions raised whether a new law which narrows death penalty cases is retroactive.
With the new law taking effect next month, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum also said she supports a special legislative session “to make sure our courts, prosecutors, defenders, victims and others have the clarity and guidance they need in connection with our most serious criminal cases.”
“We must make sure we get this law right,” Rosenblum said.
The bill narrows the state’s use of the death penalty by substantially limiting the crimes that qualify.
After Brown signed the bill on Aug. 1, lawyers for Martin Allen Johnson, who authorities say raped and murdered a 15-year-old girl in 1998 before throwing her body off a bridge, raised the issue of whether the new law applies to him.
A judge determined the crime no longer qualifies as aggravated murder under the new law. Other cases could be affected.
The new state law that takes effect Sept. 29 narrows the definition of aggravated murder, the only crime eligible for a death sentence. The law states that aggravated murder is limited 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.
House Republican Leader Carl Wilson said repealing the bill might be the best course in a special session, allowing ample time before the 2020 regular session to analyze the issue.
“The last thing we should do in this situation is quickly rush something through a compressed process,” Wilson said. “We do not want to compound the existing mistake by rushing a ‘fix’ through a daylong session in a hastily assembled committee.”
Brown, a Democrat, told reporters in a conference call that she expects Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a Democrat from the university town of Eugene who helped get the bill passed, to work with others to craft language to address the law’s retroactivity. Then she would call a special session, expected to last less than a day in September.
Prozanski said Wednesday it is imperative to move forward with a special session to provide a fix to the bill. It should clarify that it “only applies to offenses committed on or after the effective date,” Prozanski said. He is recommending a special session occur when the Legislature is already scheduled, from Sept. 16-18.
Wilson, who voted against the bill that passed in the House by a 33-26 vote, said Wednesday he prefers that any changes to the death penalty be referred to voters via a ballot measure.
Brown has extended a 2011 moratorium on the death penalty. The last execution in the state took place in 1997. The death penalty remains legal in 29 states, but only a handful regularly conduct executions.
Nationwide, 1,500 people have been executed since 1976.
Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky