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'True life' sentences in limbo for now

Jeremy Christian has yet to be sentenced for killing two men on a Portland MAX train, but it appears likely that a sentence of life without parole would be challenged on constitutional grounds. The Legislature should revisit the law it passed last year that dramatically narrowed the definition of aggravated murder, and clarify how sentences for murder that don’t involve the death penalty should be determined.

On May 26, 2017, Christian stabbed three men who intervened after he shouted racial slurs and threatened to harm two girls on the commuter train, one of whom is African American and the other a Somali immigrant who was wearing a hijab. Two of the men died, including Ashland native Taliesin Namkai-Meche, and the third was badly injured.

Christian was charged with two counts of first-degree murder, plus additional counts of attempted murder, assault and several lesser charges. Under the state’s new first-degree murder law, he faces two possible sentences: “true life” — meaning he will never be released — and life with the possibility of parole after 30 years.

The problem with sentencing Christian under the new statute is that the law as written does not require a jury to determine an elevated prison sentence, such as true life, allowing a judge to make the decision. Critics of the law, including Christian’s attorneys, other defense attorneys handling first-degree murder cases, and some prosecutors, point to a pair of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that said a jury must decide an elevated sentence.

In addition, the critics say, the law must spell out the criteria jurors must consider before handing down a harsher sentence. Oregon’s new law does not include criteria.

The judge in Christian’s trial called jurors back to the courtroom after the verdict for two days of hearings to deliberate on a series of questions posed by prosecutors, including whether the crimes were fueled by Christian’s “unreasonable racial and religious bias,” whether he “showed a callous disregard for the value of human life,” if he was likely to be violent in the future, whether he showed no remorse and whether it was highly likely he could not be rehabilitated.

After six hours of deliberation, the jury answered yes to every question.

Those extra hearings and deliberations may have been an attempt by the judge to satisfy the intent of the Supreme Court rulings, but they are unlikely to satisfy Christian’s attorneys, who will probably appeal no matter what sentence the judge ultimately imposes.

That will cast a shadow over multiple first-degree murder cases in Oregon. One true life sentence in a Hillsboro case already is under appeal.

Lawmakers won’t be able to consider rewriting the law until the 2021 session. Meanwhile, the uncertainty over the statute may have effectively taken life without parole off the table for Oregon judges.

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