Update: 9/18/19 – Governor Kate Brown announced she will not hold a special session. This means that the new law that limits the application of the death penalty in Oregon will not be watered down. The ACLU of Oregon thanks the Legislature and the Governor for standing by Oregon values of fairness and justice.
The time has come to end the death penalty. The data shows that race, county, and quality of lawyer are the biggest indicators of a death sentence — not the facts related to the crime. Executions don’t deter crime. And with every execution we carry out, we violate our Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Public support nationwide for ending capital punishment is at the highest point since 1972, and death sentences have been on the decline for years. Many states have ended the use of the death penalty, determining it to be costly, cruel, and unfairly applied.
The ACLU of Oregon has always fully opposed the death penalty, and our long-term goal is to end the death penalty in our state. That is why we were proud to testify in support of SB 1013 during the 2019 Legislative Session. The bill limited the application of the death penalty in Oregon, and is an important step in the right direction. Now, some are asking the Legislature to change the bill before it goes into effect later this month. We encourage lawmakers to let the law stand in its current form.
The problems with the death penalty are so deep they cannot be fixed:
- Innocent people are too often sentenced to death. Time and time again, innocent people are sentenced to death due to our justice system’s errors and biases. The death penalty’s track record of convicting the innocent is proof that our system can’t be trusted with deciding who lives and who dies. Since 1973, 165 people have been released from death rows in 26 states because of innocence. Nationally, at least one person is exonerated for every 10 that are executed.
- Capital punishment is riddled with racial bias. People of color are sentenced to death at disproportionately higher rates than white people, and prosecutors routinely remove qualified people of color from jury service in death penalty cases. In multiple capital cases before the Supreme Court, the justices have halted executions or granted new trials due to evidence of egregious racial bias. Finally, the death penalty is most often applied when a victim is white.
- The death penalty does not deter people from committing murder. States with the death penalty have higher murder rates than states without it. The vast majority of the world’s leading criminology scholars surveyed agree that capital punishment does not deter violent crime; a survey of police chiefs nationwide found they rank the death penalty lowest among ways to reduce violent crime.
- Limiting the application of the death penalty does not indicate a lack of sympathy for murder victims or their families. On the contrary, executions show a lack of respect for human life. They epitomize the tragic inefficacy and brutality of violence, rather than reason, as the solution to difficult social problems. In fact, many families of murder victims do not support state-sponsored violence to avenge the death of their loved one. They understand that a death sentence leads to decades of trials and appeals, each round causing more pain and difficulty for the loved ones of victims.
- Each step we take away from the death penalty will allow our state to focus our finite public resources on our communities’ needs. Our state spends $800,000 to over $1 million per case to sentence a defendant to death. This is money that would be better spent on effective violence prevention measures including mental health treatment and addiction recovery programs. Savings could also be focused on victim services and providing the family, friends and loved ones of victims of murder with the support, resources, and care we are most often failing to provide.
SB 1013 applies to future sentences and to death row cases that are overturned on appeal and resentenced because the old trial or sentence is ruled unconstitutional or illegal. It is not retroactive, as it does not reverse the convictions or sentences of people on Oregon’s death row. However, if someone makes a rightful appeal and their death sentence is overturned, they will be resentenced under the current law. This is a fair and just outcome that aligns with the shared values that propelled this bill’s passage.
SB 1013 was championed by Senator Floyd Prozanski, Representative Mitch Greenlick, and Representative Jennifer Williamson, and received broad and bipartisan support in the legislature. In recent weeks, Senator Prozanski has expressed a desire to clear up any confusion about SB 1013’s application to specific cases. We deeply respect the senator’s desire to bring clarity to the bill, however, any amendment to SB 1013 that would increase the number of cases subject to death penalty is simply not a change we can support. For that reason, we do not support a special session to amend SB 1013, and urge lawmakers to uphold the bill as it was passed.
Discussions about the death penalty are not easy, and often include a lot of pain and emotion. Nonetheless, Oregonians must continue to critically examine our use of capital punishment. We must endeavor to have hard conversations and move our state away from the death penalty entirely.