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Let voters decide on capital punishment

A bill before the state Legislature that would dramatically curtail the cases in which the death penalty could be applied passed the state Senate on Tuesday and now heads for the House.

But in the House, the bill might well run into a major roadblock: Speaker of the House Tina Kotek has said in the past she believes such a major revision in Oregon capital punishment laws should go before the state’s voters. She said this week that she would need to read the latest version of the measure, Senate Bill 1013, before making a final decision — but it certainly is true that the speaker has the power to stop a bill from advancing in the Legislature.

Here’s a case where Kotek is right: This is something that the state’s citizens deserve a chance to consider.

To be fair, Senate Bill 1013 is a well-crafted and clever bit of legislation. The bill redefines the crime of aggravated murder (the only crime in Oregon statutes that can be punished by death), so that it includes acts of terror that kill two or more people. The bill has been revised so that it includes two other instances in which a defendant could be sentenced to death: cases in which the victim was under the age of 14 or in which a defendant killed another inmate while serving time for a murder conviction.

Other offenses that currently qualify as aggravated murder under state law, such as killing someone during the course of a rape or robbery, would be reclassified as another type of murder, and the maximum punishment for those would be life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The proposed legislation also would change one of the four questions juries must decide when considering whether to impose a death sentence. Oregon jurors now must determine whether a person guilty of aggravated murder is at risk of being a danger in the future. The bill would remove that question, which is fine: It’s an unfair and unscientific duty to ask jurors to tackle.

The bill passed the Senate on Tuesday on a largely party-line 18-9 vote.

For a bill that has drawn a measure of attention this session, the floor debate in the Senate on Tuesday was remarkably restrained: Only Sen. Floyd Prozanski, the influential Eugene Democrat who’s led the charge on the bill, spoke.

The main argument opponents have raised against the bill — and the very point that Kotek is pondering — is that such a major change to state law on capital punishment should be referred to voters.

And that’s what the Legislature should do.

The verdict of Oregon voters over the last century on capital punishment has been mixed: Capital punishment was outlawed by voters in 1914 and then reenacted in 1978. Three years later, the state Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional, paving the way for a 1984 initiative in which voters reaffirmed capital punishment.

Since then, though, the topic has been rarely revisited in Oregon. After then-Gov. John Kitzhaber imposed a moratorium on capital punishment in 2011, he made a halfhearted effort to goad the Legislature into action, but the proposal didn’t gain any traction. Gov. Kate Brown has said that she plans to continue the moratorium, but hasn’t taken much of an active role on the issue.

Oregon hasn’t executed a prisoner since May 1997; the state has 32 men and one woman on death row.

It’s very possible that the opinions of Oregonians have changed since that 1984 initiative, as the national debate over the death penalty has taken intriguing twists and turns in the 35 years since then. But there’s only one way to find out for sure. The Legislature should let voters decide.