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Let voters decide on the death penalty

Oregonians have been of two minds about the death penalty over the years. That’s why it is especially important to let voters, not the Legislature, have the last say on whether this state should effectively outlaw execution as punishment for the state’s worst crimes.

House Bill 3268 would ignore that crucial step. Instead, the measure, sponsored by state Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, would simply change the definition of “aggravated murder” to eliminate everyone now on Oregon’s death row. Execution would be available only when two or more were killed in an act of terrorism.

Favor the death penalty or not, an end run around voters is no way to decide the question.

The state’s history with capital punishment shows just how often we’ve changed our minds on the subject. Oregon became a state in 1859 and first adopted the death penalty in 1864. Voters outlawed the procedure first in 1914 by a narrow, 157 votes, margin. It was reinstated, again by voters, by a much larger margin in 1920.

They changed their minds again in 1964, repealing the death penalty a second time. Just two days later, Gov. Mark Hatfield commuted the sentences of the three people on death row, including Jeannace June Freeman, then 22, who had been convicted of killing her lover’s 6-year-old son by throwing him off the bridge into the Crooked River Gorge in May 1961.

Voters reinstated the death penalty in 1978, only to have it overturned by the state Supreme Court in 1981. Voters reinstated it again in 1984.

It’s hard to say what voters would do if asked to vote on the death penalty again. Nationally, execution is far less common than it used to be. Oregonians should get that chance, however — the number of states that do not have the death penalty has about doubled since the punishment was reinstated here, suggesting views on it are changing. Simply eliminating most crimes from that punishment, as HB 3268 would do, skips that important step and should be defeated.