A ruling issued by the Oregon Supreme Court Thursday morning will likely have the effect of clearing all current death sentences in the state, and possibly ending Oregon’s death penalty.
The case, State v. Bartol, saw David Ray Bartol appealing his 2016 death sentence for fatally stabbing a fellow prison inmate. In this case, Bartol’s lawyers argued that Bartol’s death sentence should no longer apply, because of the law passed by the Oregon State Legislature and signed into law by Governor Kate Brown in 2019.
That law—Senate Bill 1013—effectively took away the death penalty as a sentencing option in Oregon for nearly all murder cases. At the time of its passing, SB 1013 received criticism from lawmakers concerned that the law would become retroactive, meaning it would apply to past cases. With Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling, SB 1013 does become retroactive, making it easier for other death row inmates to appeal their own sentences.
As of last year, 29 people faced death sentences in Oregon. The Oregon Department of Corrections dissolved the state’s death row in May 2020, moving those inmates to the general prison population in an effort to streamline prison operations—but their death sentences remained intact. Oregon hasn’t executed anyone since 1997, as the state’s Democratic governors have voluntarily declined to enforce executions. But people continued to be sentenced to death, and prosecutors continued to use the possibility of death as a bargaining chip when negotiating plea deals.
“The death penalty is so arbitrary that each guy fears he is going to be the one who gets it,” said Portland defense attorney Jeff Ellis in a study on the Oregon death penalty published in 2016. Ellis submitted a brief on behalf of Bartol in State v. Bartol.
The death penalty has also placed a financial and logistical burden on Oregon’s court system. From the Mercury’s prior reporting on SB 1013:
While Oregon’s use of capital punishment has been limited in the last 35 years, the death penalty has heavily burdened the state’s court system… [Death penalty cases] can cost the state between $800,000 and $1 million more to prosecute than standard aggravated murder cases, according to a 2016 cost study authored by Aliza Kaplan, a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School and co-founder of the Oregon Innocence Project.
That’s because death penalty trials require hiring pricey “death qualified” defense attorneys, tracking down multiple subject experts and researchers, orchestrating an unusually rigorous jury selection process, and allowing for a decades-long appeals process.
“Aggravated murder cases that result in death sentences are more complex: More time, more effort, and more resources means more money on average, per case,” reads the study. “This is a simple fact.”
In the Supreme Court’s Thursday ruling, Justice Rebecca Duncan wrote that “Because death is the most severe punishment, it must be reserved for the most serious offenses.” Because SB 1013 narrowed the requirements for the death penalty to a very strict standard not met by Bartol’s crime, the Court reasoned, his death sentence could not be justified.
“Maintaining [Bartol’s] death sentence would allow the execution of a person for conduct that the legislature has determined no longer justifies that unique and ultimate punishment,” the decision reads, “and it would allow the execution of a person for conduct that the legislature has determined is no more culpable than conduct that should not result in death.”