PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A day after Gov. Kate Brown commuted all of Oregon’s death sentences to life without the possibility of parole and ordered the execution chamber at the state penitentiary in Salem to be dismantled, concerns are rising from some in the state’s legal community that some former death row inmates could potentially get parole.
On Tuesday, Brown said in her announcement commuting the death sentences of 17 inmates that these inmates will now face a life sentence as opposed to a death sentence. However, for about six years, Oregon did not have a life sentence option, which means some inmates sentenced within that time frame may be paroled.
Multiple current and former prosecutors told KOIN 6 News this is because the law at the time of their sentencing is the only law that matters.
In 1984, Oregon voters reinstated the death penalty, creating two potential options for murder sentences: death or life in prison with the possibility of parole after 30 years. It wasn’t until 1991 that Oregon had an “official” life sentence that did not include the possibility of parole.
“I don’t know why she (Brown) thinks she could just wave a magic wand and make it different,” said John Foote, former Clackamas County District Attorney. “She can commute sentences, but she can’t change the law that was in effect when these people were arrested, and I can guarantee you the defense attorney community is ready to pounce.”
Several convicted murderers on Brown’s list of 17 commuted death row prisoners fall into that category, including Robert Langley, who killed two people in the late 1980s and Marco Mendez, who strangled his victim in a motel room and burned the body.
The governor’s office did not specifically refute these concerns, only stating they are confident in Brown’s ability to commute these sentences.
Foote also told KOIN 6 News that combined with a 2019 law change that significantly limited the death penalty, the move by Brown shows the outgoing governor is trying to dismantle the death penalty around the will of the voters.
“They act like they can just do this even though they know the voters don’t agree,” he said.
A poll from DHM research from January 2021 showed 61% of voters support the death penalty.
After this move and 1,000 other sentences commuted in Brown’s tenure, some state lawmakers think the governor’s power has overreached.
“As it relates to these commutation pardons, it is now clear it needs to be curtailed,” state Sen. Tim Knopp (R-Bend), who is the minority leader in the state Senate chamber, said. “And that has to be done constitutionally.”
Frank Lonergan, the Mayor of Woodburn, released a statement expressing displeasure surrounding Brown’s decision.
“This week marks the somber 14th anniversary of the Woodburn bank bombing that resulted in the murders of Woodburn Police Captain Tom Tennant and Senior Trooper Bill Hakim and seriously wounding Police Chief Scott Russell and employees of West Coast Bank. Since that terrible day, the Woodburn community has stood together in support of those first responders who were not only impacted by the bombing, but have continued to serve and protect our culturally rich and vibrant City with honor, integrity and professionalism.
For those impacted, the road has not been easy. As Mayor, I was shocked and angered to learn that Governor Brown unilaterally commuted the death sentences of the two murderers who committed these terrible crimes against our police officers and our community without consultation or apparent consideration of victims, the City, the Woodburn Police Department or any evaluation of the specific facts related to the convictions of the bombers, who were found guilty by an Oregon jury and sentenced by a Marion County Judge. Despite the senseless and tragic loss of life that day, families, friends, co-workers and the many members of our community affected by the bombing have worked to move forward with the assurance that the criminal justice system would deliver justice commensurate with the heinous crime perpetrated on the victims ofthe bombing and the Woodburn community. The massive resources expended to apprehend these murderers, fairly adjudicate them and sentence them to a similar fate they imposed on their victims has been of solace.
After a trial lasting more than two months, a jury convicted Bruce and Joshua Turnidge of murder and placed them both on death row. In 2016, the Oregon Supreme Court carefully considered the case and issued an 143 page opinion upholding the convictions. Governor Brown’s unilateral decision to supersede the legal process, commuting the sentences of the Woodburn bombers, is a betrayal of those who relied on and believed that the criminal justice system would fairly deliver justice to those who killed and maimed our first responders and attacked our community members. Governor Brown’s decision is an injustice to those who were affected by the bombing and a repudiation of Oregon voters who established the death penalty for those convicted of murdering innocent victims and police officers. We expected better.”