PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Yet another high-profile Oregon murder case is being affected by Senate Bill 1013.
The bill redefines the definition of aggravated murder and could take the death penalty off the table for several defendants, including a man accused of the brutal murder and dismemberment of a young Aloha mother.
Sara Zghoul’s remains were found stuffed into two suitcases in the back of a black BMW in January of 2018. Jeremiah Ward Johnston was later arrested and charged with several counts including aggravated murder.
On Tuesday, defense attorneys filed a motion to dismiss seven of the 10 counts against Johnston “because the definition of ‘aggravated murder’ has been altered by Senate Bill 1013.”
The motion reads, in part:
“During the 2019 regular session of the 80th Oregon Legislative Assembly, the Legislature enacted Senate Bill 1013 (SB 1013), with an effective date of September 29, 2019. The bill included a partial retroactivity clause (Sections 30 and 31) which applied to pending aggravated murder cases. On September 29, 2019, Mr. Johnston’s aggravated murder case was (and still is) pending. SB 1013 altered the definition of ‘aggravated murder’ by the addition of a new element: ‘premeditated.'”
Johnston’s trial is set to begin in January of 2021.
Retired Multnomah County Chief Deputy District Attorney Norm Frink believes lawmakers who pushed the bill wanted to eliminate the death penalty without bringing the issue before the public.
“They’ve been completely dishonest in the way they’ve pursued those policies. It’s really reprehensible,” he told KOIN 6 News. “Ninety-nine percent of the cases that were formerly eligible for the death penalty aren’t eligible.”
Democratic Rep. Jeff Barker of Aloha told KOIN 6 News he voted ‘no’ on SB 1013 and thought the issue of the death penalty should be put before voters. He said lawmakers were also initially told it would not be retroactive.
SB 1013 was carried by Rep. Jennifer Williamson of Portland and Sen. Floyd Prozanski of Eugene, both of whom are Democrats.
Barker said Prozanski spoke with him over the phone and suggested they take on the job of fixing the bill during a special session but that never happened.
KOIN 6 News has reached out to Williamson and Prozanski for comment.
Follow KOIN 6 for the latest news and weather