Roger Martin is lobbyist for the Oregon Catholic Conference, public policy wing of the church in Oregon.
Roger Martin is lobbyist for the Oregon Catholic Conference, public policy wing of the church in Oregon.
SALEM — An Oregon Senate panel is considering proposed legislation that would narrow the number of crimes that trigger the possibility of the death penalty.

Senate Bill 1013 would limit death sentences to convicts guilty of terrorist acts that kill more than one person. The bill also would block death penalty juries from taking into account how dangerous a convict might be in the future.

The Oregon Catholic Conference supports the bill, which is working its way through the Senate Judiciary Committee toward the Senate floor. It is expected to pass and be signed by Gov. Kate Brown.

“I wish people who are for the death penalty could visit death row and see what kind of people are there,” said Roger Martin, lobbyist for the conference, public policy wing of the church in Oregon.

Martin, telling members of the Senate committee April 1 that the church has long opposed capital punishment, said that many murderers commit their crimes as young men, when their brains are not fully developed.

Lynn Strand, vice president of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and a member of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Lake Oswego, told lawmakers that there is a “total myth of closure” when it comes to victim families and executions.

“Deterrence and retribution are not served by Oregon’s death penalty,” added Paul DeMuniz, retired chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court and a member of Queen of Peace Parish in Salem. DeMuniz, who supports the bill, told lawmakers that death sentences are too serious to process quickly, but move too slowly to be a tool of justice for families. Some inmates on Oregon’s death row are 30 years into reviews, he said.

DeMuniz called the current process “unreliable,” noting that 60 percent of Oregon death sentences imposed since 1984 have been reversed. He cited the case of Jeff Tiner, a Catholic death row inmate convicted in 1994 but who now is awaiting a new trial.

Senate Bill 1013 is not retroactive and would not give a reprieve to any of the 35 inmates on Oregon’s death row.

Other religious leaders support the bill.

“We emphasize the power of redemption,” said Howard Kenyon, vice president of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. “The death penalty ends the opportunity for a person to change.”

Kenyon — father of Deacon Stephen Kenyon, who is on track to be ordained a priest in June — told the panel that no one can reasonably predict how dangerous another human being will be in the future. “Only our maker can understand the predictability of the human heart,” Howard Kenyon said.

The Rev. Charles Mantey, pastor of St. Mark Lutheran Church in Salem, expressed doubts that the death penalty can be handed out fairly, without race and class coming into play. “The death penalty distracts us from our work for a just society,” Rev. Mantey said.

Rabbi Ariel Stone of Congregation Shir Tikvah in Northeast Portland said Hebrew Scripture does contain references to the death penalty, but also has many outdated ideas that do not make sense in modernity. She said Jewish tradition has long regarded executions as “highly problematic.”

Two House members came to testify in favor of Senate Bill 1013.

Rep. Jennifer Williamson, a Portland Democrat and House majority leader, said that current practice in Oregon lets victim families down. Oregon gives the impression that it has a death penalty, but it does not use the law, Williamson said.

Two men were executed in the 1990s, but only after they volunteered and fired their attorneys. The last non-voluntary execution in Oregon was in 1962.

Williamson, a graduate of Valley Catholic High School, said the bill would make it clear from the start who can and cannot get a death sentence.

“The process is lengthy; trials are expensive,” Williamson said of death penalty cases.

Aliza Kaplan of the Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland described an investigation her department did in partnership with Jesuit-run Seattle University. The study, issued last year, showed that the average death penalty case in Oregon cost about $1.3 million while the average life in prison case cost about $334,000.

“Maintaining capital punishment the way we do it is a very expensive choice,” said Kaplan, suggesting that the funds could pay for more law enforcement or investigations of unsolved murders.

Oregon’s current death penalty law “is a cruel deception on victims’ families and a cruel deception on the public,” said Stephen Kanter, a former Lewis and Clark Law School dean. Kanter told the panel that the bill “dramatically improves the sentencing process.” He also argued that there is no conclusive evidence that the death penalty is a stronger deterrent to murder than life imprisonment and called a system in which jurors try to decide how dangerous someone will be in the future a “disaster” that may be unconstitutional.

“You have the power and you have the responsibility to do the right thing,” Kanter told lawmakers. “Can we get closer to the kind of society we want with this bill? Yes.”

Oregonians have been fickle when it comes to the death penalty, flipping back and forth since the 1860s. The last big change was a reinstatement of executions in 1984.

The only testimony against the bill came from Patty Perlow, Lane County’s district attorney. Arguing that the death penalty should not be reserved only for terrorists, she told several heart-wrenching and gruesome stories of murders in Oregon.

“If your goal is to either eliminate the death penalty or the circumstances under which it would be considered, let’s have an honest conversation about that and refer it to the voters,” Perlow told the panel of lawmakers.

Two parallel pieces of legislation, House Bills 3268 and 3269, are awaiting hearings in the Oregon House.