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Kerry's bill

A Central Point woman's murder brings a call for tougher penalties in crimes committed against pregnant women

The legal system couldn't provide justice for their murdered daughter. But the parents of Kerry Repp are determined to change Oregon law in her memory.

Ron and JoeAnn Johnson of Medford are backing a Senate bill requiring harsher penalties for crimes committed against pregnant women. Sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Kate Brown, D-Portland, the bill will be introduced this week. If it becomes law, the killer of a pregnant woman could receive the death penalty.

Kerry, 29, died in her Central Point home on May 4, 2002. Three months pregnant with another man's child, she was shot four times with her husband's handgun. Her husband, Gary Marvin Repp Jr., was acquitted of Kerry's murder in March 2004.

Before Repp's trial, the Johnsons said they just assumed his punishment ' if convicted ' would be harsher because Kerry was pregnant. They were stunned to hear Oregon law placed relatively little value on the life of their unborn grandchild. A mother of two young boys, Kerry was thrilled at the prospect of another baby, they said.

Somebody took her decision away, Ron Johnson said. This is something we're trying to do in Kerry's name.

JoeAnn Johnson started to cry as she said the bill would be named for her only daughter. Its assigned number ' 712 ' is an inversion of Kerry's birthday, Dec. 7.

Kerry, California's Laci Peterson and 1,365 other expectant mothers have been murdered in the United States within the past 15 years, Brown said. Research shows that abuse against women often escalates when they are pregnant, she added.

This is 'Kerry Repp's Act,' but it's also acknowledging the growing problem of domestic violence against pregnant women, Brown said.

Creating harsher penalties for crimes against pregnant women seemingly has bipartisan support. But the means to an end likely is fraught with moral debates.

House representatives have introduced their own bill that gives a fetus human being status and creates separate assault and murder counts for the mother and unborn child. The bill makes exceptions for lawful abortion and acts committed by the pregnant mother.

Republican Reps. Dennis Richardson of Central Point and Sal Esquivel of Medford have sponsored the House bill. Sen. Jason Atkinson, a Central Point Republican, has leant his support to an almost identical bill introduced in the Senate.

Critics of the Republican-sponsored bills say those legislators are defining a fetus as a person with the eventual goal of outlawing abortion.

Brown's bill differs in that it doesn't give the fetus any special status. But the provision of the bill allowing the death penalty for the murder of a pregnant woman could create conflicts for Democrats, historically opposed to capital punishment.

Admitting to reservations about the death penalty, Rep. Peter Buckley said he supports the Kerry Repp bill. The abortion debate should be kept out of it, the Ashland Democrat added.

It distresses me that people's tragedies are used this way for political gain, he said.

Also supportive, Democratic Sen. Alan Bates of Ashland said he predicted the Kerry Repp bill will be well received in the Senate and likely would reach the House within a week or two. The Oregon District Attorneys Association also is lending its approval.

I think it's an appropriate response to an absolutely horrific crime that occurred in our community, Bates said.

If the governor signs their bill, the Johnsons will have prevailed where they failed two years ago. With the help of Rep. Gordon Anderson, a Grants Pass Republican, they lobbied support in 2003 to increase penalties for crimes against expectant mothers. That bill fizzled in a legislative session overburdened by budget concerns. Brown promised the Johnsons she would try again.

The Senate majority leader also took inspiration from the Johnsons' fight to adopt Kerry and Gary Repp's son, now 7. The issue of notifying a child's grandparents during an adoption proceeding also will come before the Senate this session, Brown said.

The adoption battle was one the Johnsons could not win. Gary Repp's family adopted Kerry's younger son. The Johnsons have joint custody of Kerry's older boy, now 9, by her first husband who was killed by a passing car while walking along a Coos County highway. They share guardianship with the boy's paternal grandparents.

The ashes of Kerry's unborn child reside in a pendant JoeAnn Johnson wears around her neck. Kerry is buried in Eagle Point National Cemetery under a grave marker the Johnsons did not choose. A new law, a legacy of her parents' choosing, would be Kerry's final memorial.

For us, Ron Johnson said, it's all we have.

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JoeAnn and Ron Johnson, parents of Kerry Repp, hope the Oregon Legislature will pass a law requiring stiffer penalties for crimes committed against pregnant women. Their only daughter was three months pregnant when she was murdered in May 2002. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven