Oregon lawmakers vote to sharply narrow death penalty

Jefferson County DA Leriche dismayed by move

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon will substantially narrow the use of the death penalty by limiting qualifying crimes.

The Senate voted 17-10 Saturday to restrict capital punishment to apply to terrorist acts that kill two or more people. Killing police officers and kids younger than 14 also applies.

Lawmakers cannot introduce an outright ban on capital punishment without sending the measure to the ballot box.

Voters approved adding the death penalty to the Oregon Constitution in 1984.

The measure, Senate Bill 1013, now heads to the Gov. Kate Brown, who extended a 2011 moratorium on using the death penalty.

The state Department of Corrections says there were 30 people on death row as of Jan. 1, 2019. The last execution was in 1997.

State Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, was among those voting no on the bill.

Jefferson County District Attorney Steven Leriche has been sharply critical of the move, calling it "an end-around from having an honest discussion with the voters about the death penalty."

"Changing the definition of aggravated murder seems like the kind of political trick that people detest," Leriche recently said in a note to Sen. Cliff Bentz. "The average person in Oregon will be shocked to learn that without having a say in the matter that the most vile serial killer does not fall under the definition of aggravated murder."

In a recent interview with NewsChannel 21, Leriche said someone like Washington's Green River Killer, who killed 50 women, wouldn't fall under the new definition of aggravated murder and would not face the death penalty.

"The pendulum's swung way over to the wrong side," he said. "This really makes the death penalty irrelevant in most situations."

"I'm not a big death penalty person," Leriche said. "I've never sought it out in a case. But I'm pretty big on doing the process where the people get a say in such an important issue. The death penalty is a big moral issue. It just shouldn't be reserved to a select group."

"Right now, if you look at Oregon's death row, the only people who'd fall under the statute are the Woodburn (bank) bombers," a 2008 incident that killed two officers and seriously injured a third, the prosecutor said.

"The next concern is, with a lame-duck governor, she'll say, 'They don't even fall under the definition of aggravated murder now, so I'll commute their sentences," Leriche said. "The statute also takes away 'true life' (sentences without parole). That could result in some alarming results."

"Parole hearings are horrible things," in which a DA must find the victims and bring them forward, so they have to "relive the whole darn thing with them. People who are victims, they want to move on and never face that again."

Leriche was hopful that "maybe someone would get serious about referring it to the voters," like the move to end non-unanimous jury verdicts.

"Why are we so scared of the voters? I don't get it," he said.

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