PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Oregon Governor Kate Brown has made it a focus of her administration to reevaluate the sentences of juveniles convicted of violent crimes, but KOIN 6 News is finding a recent commutation falls outside of that criteria.
Kyle Hedquist, who is now 45, was 18 years and 3 months old when he killed Nikki Thrasher, a 19-year-old, in November 1994.
The gruesome nature of the murder has prosecutors and law enforcement leaders enraged with the decision.
Douglas County John Hanlin was the first officer to respond to where Thrasher’s body was dumped, on a rural logging road outside of Roseburg.
“Anytime you respond to a body dump somewhere, it’s a stressful, shocking type of call to respond to,” Hanlin recalled.
The scene where Thrasher struck Hanlin as callous, saying it looked like her body was “like a piece of trash.”
The pretext for the murder strikes him even more.
Hedquist had robbed items from his aunt’s house. Knowing nothing about the robbery, Thrasher asked Hedquist about the items.
Hedquist took that as a threat, had Thrasher drive him out to the rural stretches of the county outside of Roseburg, forced Thrasher out of the car, shot her in the back of the head, then dumped her body on the side of a logging road.
“He clearly put some thought and planning into the killing and disposal of his victim,” Hanlin said, “He in cold blood pulled the gun out and executed her. That tells me (he) has no remorse, no value for human life, and generally, a person like that isn’t going to change… The executive clemency granted by Gov. Brown in this case is shocking and irresponsible.”
Hedquist is the first commutation KOIN 6 could find of a person who was an adult at the time of committing a murder or violent crime to be granted clemency. There could be more, but the Governor’s office seldom announces releases of these kinds of offenders.
The Hedquist case was brought to light because of a post from Marion County’s district attorney and sheriff alerting their community to Hedquist’s release into their community.
“This particular release into this community just seemed inappropriate for Marion County and wasn’t done with the appropriate protocol and the proper risk assessment and safety measures in place,” Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson said. “The only thing that my sheriff and I were left to do was just let people know that it was happening.”
The outrage Clarkson expressed has been echoed by several of her colleagues across the state.
“The Governor’s commutation decision, in this case, is a staggering departure from common sense, and from basic public safety decision-making,” Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton said.
Barton has taken concern with other commutations but does agree that juvenile cases should be looked at through a different lens than adult cases. However, he says Hedquist, “was an adult in every sense of the word.”
“I think what it says to criminals and perpetrators is you’ve got a friend in the Governor’s office. What it says to the rest of us is, there’s a broken public safety system and this is not working,” Barton said.
Hedquist also pleaded guilty to the murder, to avoid going to trial in a death-penalty case, Hanlin says. As a prosecutor, Barton says that disrespects the Thrasher family as well as the prosecutors and officers working on the case.
After days of asking, Governor Brown’s office did reply to KOIN. We sent a list of questions and while some were answered, the Governor’s Press Secretary Elizabeth Murah said Hedquist’s case “exemplifies the type of personal transformation we should all hope to see from people incarcerated in our criminal justice system.”
“Mr. Hedquist has a documented history of extensive rehabilitation, including ongoing engagement in cognitive-behavioral and anger management, skills-based and religious programs, and extensive volunteer experience…” Merah’s statement said in part.
Part of the volunteer experience includes spending time with people in hospice care centers.
That time was part of an essay Hedquist penned as part of an inmate writing competition in Pen.org where he says, it changed his outlook on death.
“I didn’t plead with death to wait. I’ve questioned my motives, my purpose, and my role in prison. Murder brought me to this place, but it was dealing with death that brought me back to life,” Hedquist wrote. He received an honorable mention by Pen.org in 2019 for the piece.
Merah’s statement, which can be read in full at the bottom of this story, says Brown generally considers cases who dedicate themselves to rehabilitation, take accountability for the crimes they committed, and make a significant effort to make ‘their communities a better place.’
In a Facebook post applauding President Joe Biden’s commutations, Brown defended her orders on Tuesday and says she turns down more applications than she grants.
Brown also took aim at district attorneys like Clarkson and Barton, saying they’re using these cases to “score political points.” However, the Governor is also getting pushback from within her own party.
Democratic Senator Ron Wyden issued a statement opposing the clemency granted to Kyle Hedquist.
“This clemency decision is wrong on every level, starting with its callousness toward the crime victim’s family and extending to all Oregonians counting on public officials to make decisions with public safety in mind,” Wyden said. “Plain and simple, I oppose this grossly irresponsible use of the clemency powers.”
Since taking office in 2015, Brown has granted 1,148 sentence commutations — 963 of them to minimize the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, Merah said. Also among the total were 41 commutations for inmates who fought wildfires and 72 who committed crimes as juveniles and were sentenced to more than 15 years. Brown also granted 63 pardons. Commutations reduce prison terms, while pardons forgive defendants of crimes.
The number of clemencies from governors varies widely across the nation.
— Democratic Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee, in office since 2013, has issued 1,266 clemency orders, including 422 because of the pandemic and 35 for marijuana convictions.
— California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat in office since 2019, has granted 112 pardons, 109 commutations and 34 reprieves.
— Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican who took office in 2019, has granted clemency to 17 people. The Republican governors of Mississippi, South Carolina and Idaho have issued zero clemencies during their terms.
— Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, has granted 293 clemency actions since 2020, including 275 pardons and 18 commutations. Parson said there was a backlog of clemency requests when he took office following the 2018 resignation of fellow GOP Gov. Eric Greitens.
— Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat in office since 2015, issued 159 pandemic-related temporary reprieves for inmates. Of that number, 62 were returned to custody and Wolf commuted the sentences of 97. His office said he has issued 1,996 pardons — more than any other governor in more than 20 years.
Merah provided several letters supporting Hedquist’s release. However, questions around if other adults convicted of violent crimes have been granted or will be granted clemency, remain unanswered.
“The one thing that I always want to give to a victim is the ability to put behind them the worst thing that’s happened to them, the attack and violation of their safety. I’ve always felt confident that even though we can never undo the crime, we can always help put that behind them,” Barton said, “To have a governor simply, with a swipe of the pen, undo all of that, it really pulls the rug out from underneath everyone and it really make you question whether the system was working.”
Liz Merah’s Full statement on behalf of the Governor’s Office:
Kyle Hedquist was in high school when he committed this crime, and was 18 years old when he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the chance for parole––a sentence far stricter than an 18-year-old would likely receive today. Over the next 28 years, he worked to rehabilitate himself, and exemplifies the type of personal transformation we should all hope to see from people incarcerated in our criminal justice system. Granting clemency is an extraordinary act that the Governor generally reserves for individuals who have made incredible changes to rehabilitate themselves, take accountability for their crimes, and dedicate themselves to making their communities a better place.
The review process for clemency is extensive and involves input from the district attorney’s office. The Governor deeply values input from any victims involved in the case at issue, and takes every effort to obtain that input in the most victim-centered and trauma-informed way possible. To that end, in seriously considering any clemency application, the Governor’s Office will reach out to the respective District Attorney’s office to obtain their input and any input from victims––well before making any decision to release someone from custody. To be clear, the District Attorney is statutorily required to notify victims of a clemency application and obtain their input for the Governor’s consideration pursuant to ORS 144.650(3). In addition to this statutory obligation, it is important to note that we rely on the DA’s offices to perform this outreach because their victim assistance staff is trauma-informed and, in many cases, know the victims personally. No release decisions are made without gathering victim input through the DA’s offices. I can confirm that the Douglas County DA was notified of Mr. Hedquist’s clemency application and that staff in the Governor’s office subsequently requested the DA’s position, including input from victims in accordance with his statutory obligations.
Mr. Hedquist has a documented history of extensive rehabilitation, including ongoing engagement in cognitive behavioral, anger management, skills-based, and religious programs and extensive volunteer experience, including over 20 years volunteering for hospice care services and mentoring other adults in custody. He also helped bring new programming to Oregon’s prisons and received support from countless members of our corrections system. Importantly, Mr. Hedquist has also taken accountability for his crime, and expressed remorse for his actions.
Mr. Hedquist is now living with someone who is a former parole and probation officer and retired chaplain who served the Department of Corrections and community corrections for decades. And, his conditions of supervision are more stringent than most other similarly situated releases, including lifetime supervision and current GPS monitoring. If Mr. Hedquist violates any terms of his post-prison supervision, the Governor can revoke his commutation.
AP contributed to this KOIN 6 News report.