Gov. Kate Brown says she’s ready to call for a special legislative session to make sure that a new law limiting the use of the death penalty won’t apply to old cases.

During a telephone call with reporters last week, Brown added some asterisks: She said she would call for the session if one of the law’s key supporters, Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, is able to craft the language for what she called a “very narrow fix” for the bill and if there was enough support for the fix to pass in the Legislature. The likely time for such a session would be during the week of Sept. 16, when legislative committees are scheduled to meet anyway.

In general, it’s wise for these special sessions to be tightly focused and very limited in their scope: This isn’t the time, for example, for proponents of cap-and-trade carbon legislation to renew their case, even though some advocates are kicking around that possibility. (Besides, that effort should await efforts by the governor to reach out to the rural portions of Oregon where opposition to the cap-and-trade measure crystallized.)

In any event, Prozanski has his work cut out for him over the next couple of weeks: Even though this looks like it should be a relatively easy fix, the path to fixing the death penalty bill, Senate Bill 1013, faces a number of potential pitfalls — as we learned during the last days of this year’s legislative session.

The bill in question was ingeniously structured to limit the crimes for which the death penalty can be invoked without referring the question to voters. Under Oregon law, only the crime of “aggravated murder” can be punished by death. Senate Bill 1013 reduces the number of crimes that qualify as aggravated murder. Under the terms of the bill, aggravated murder can only be charged in cases in which a defendant kills two or more people as an act of organized terrorism; kills a child younger than 14 intentionally and with premeditation; kills another person while incarcerated for a previous aggravated murder; or kills a law enforcement officer. Other crimes that used to be included on the list of aggravated murder are now classified as “first-degree murder,” and the maximum penalty for those is life imprisonment without parole.

Most legislators and the governor, who signed the bill, believed that it wasn’t intended to be retroactive; that is, it would not apply to the 30 inmates on Oregon’s death row. But legal analysts determined that it could apply to death row cases which were returned to lower courts for retrial or new sentencing hearings — and that could affect those 30 cases, since not of them has exhausted their appeals.

Prozanski said last week that he will press for the bill to apply only in cases when the crime is committed after Sept. 29 of this year, which would seem to be sufficient to clear up any misinterpretation.

Whether he can get the necessary votes to move the fix quickly through a special session, however, is not at all clear. Republican legislators last week were not encouraging. House Republican Leader Carl Wilson of Grants Pass said that rushing the bill through the Legislature in a “compressed process” is the “last thing we should do in this situation.” Wilson said the best bet might be to repeal the bill.

But it seems doubtful that Republicans have the votes to do that, unless a sufficient number of Democrats are steamed about being misinformed about the retroactive nature of the bill.

The best course available to legislators now is to give Prozanski some running room to fix the bill. If he succeeds at that task on a very tight time frame, legislators should approve the fix.

But the discussion shouldn’t end there: Legislators should work in next year’s short session on referring the broader question to voters: Should Oregon do away with the death penalty entirely? It’s time to the let Oregon citizens join this vital debate. 

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