A flap over the interpretation of a new state law narrowing the definition of aggravated murder — the only charge in Oregon eligible for the death penalty — has caused confusion for Central Oregon’s district attorneys.
Senate Bill 1013 restricts the death penalty to four instances — acts of terrorism in which two or more people are killed, premeditated murders of children younger than 14, prison murders by people incarcerated for aggravated murder, and premeditated murders of police or corrections officers.
Oregon has 30 prisoners on death row, but none have been executed since Harry Charles Moore was killed by lethal injection in May 1997. Former Gov. John Kitzhaber signed a moratorium on the death penalty in 2011, calling it “morally wrong.” Gov. Kate Brown signed SB 1013 on Aug. 1.
The new law could affect even cases where the victim didn’t die and the suspect is charged with attempted aggravated murder. There are two such cases pending in Jefferson County.
One is the case of Juan Francisco Hernandez-Medina, who’s accused of shooting two men last month at a home in Madras.
The other defendant is Josue Mendoza-Melo, accused of abusing his girlfriend’s 2-year-old son in November 2017 and causing a permanent brain injury.
Jefferson County District Attorney Steve LeRiche said the new law has frustrated his office’s ability to prepare in both cases.
“It’s really hard to know what to do,” he said. “Will we have to re-indict them under the new law? Or will it apply to them after the fact? What’s really frustrating about the whole thing is the lack of clarity.”
LeRiche said the law would be easier to interpret if it applied at the time of the offense, rather than at the time of sentencing, as it’s written.
“This is a really important law, and it probably needs to be fixed,” he said.
Defense attorneys for a Washington County man accused of rape and murder started working to apply the law to their cases. Then on Wednesday, The Oregonian newspaper publicized an email sent to prosecutors by the Oregon solicitor general warning that the former death row inmate cannot be sentenced to death upon retrial.
In Deschutes County, the law potentially applies to the prosecution of Tashina Jordan, a Bend woman accused of aggravated murder in the death of her 7-year-old son.
Mason Jordan suffered from severe physical and developmental disabilities and required full-time care. Tashina Jordan lived with him and her mother in a three-bedroom home in a quiet neighborhood in south Bend.
On Aug. 20, 2018, Jordan’s mother returned home to find her grandson dead of a gunshot wound to the forehead and her daughter unconscious and clinging to life following an overdose of pills. The grandmother found two notes in the home written by Jordan explaining why she did what she did, according to court testimony in March.
Her attorneys don’t dispute that Jordan pulled the trigger. According to court filings, they intended to assert a defense of guilty except for insanity.
Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel said Friday he is still considering whether to pursue the death penalty against Jordan. It would be surprising given Hummel’s personal position on capital punishment.
“I’m morally opposed to the death penalty so I am supportive of the Legislature limiting the opportunity for the state to kill people,” Hummel said.
Late last week, the Oregon Association of District Attorneys sent a statement to the bill’s sponsors warning of “a public safety issue that requires your immediate attention.”
“This law is a failure on multiple levels — a failure to respect the will of voters, failure to draft a clear law for Oregon’s most dangerous criminals and a failure of trust by telling voters it is not retroactive when the opposite is true,” ODAA president Beth Heckert wrote.
One of the sponsors of SB 1013, Floyd Prozanski, has called for a special legislative session to address the lack of procedural clarity in the bill, according to further reporting by The Oregonian.
— Reporter: 541-383-0325, email@example.com