Oregon Supreme Court ruling likely to clear death row

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The Oregon Supreme Court issued a ruling last week which will likely overturn the death sentences of all 23 prisoners on death row.

In State v. Bartol, the court struck down the death sentence of David Bartol, a gang member who killed another prisoner, Gavin Siscel, in 2013. Bartol’s lawyers argued that his death sentence was invalid because he was sentenced before the state legislature changed its death penalty law in 2019, which narrowed the grounds on which a person can be sentenced to death.

The court agreed, and said that for anyone sentenced under the old aggravated murder statute, the death penalty violates a section of the state constitution that looks at evolving standards of decency and requires proportional punishment.

The 23 prisoners currently on death row were all sentenced under the old law. (Oregon no longer has a physical death row. Last year, the Department of Corrections dispersed its condemned prisoners to general populations and other housing units in prisons around the state.)

“My expectation is that every death sentence that is currently in place will be overturned as a result of this,” Oregon Capital Resource Center co-director Jeffrey Ellis told Oregon Public Broadcasting.

The court upheld Bartol’s conviction but ordered him resentenced, which will likely mean a life sentence.

The court’s decision came a day after the Oregon Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for another death row prisoner. The court said Jesse Lee Johnson, sentenced to death for a 1998 murder, should get a new trial because his lawyer failed to interview a key witness in his case, OPB reported.

Oregon’s last execution was in 1997.

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