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Oregon substantially narrows use of death penalty

SALEM — Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed a law Thursday narrowing the state's use of the death penalty by substantially limiting the crimes that qualify for capital punishment.

Lawmakers have considered it a way to reform the state's use of death row without actually taking the issue to the voters. Oregon reinstated the death penalty by popular vote in 1984.

The new law comes weeks after the federal government announced that it would resume executing death-row inmates for the first time since 2003, bringing a largely dormant issue back into the national spotlight.

Previously, the death sentence in Oregon could apply to cases of "aggravated murder," which includes crimes such as killing on-duty police officers or slayings during a rape or robbery. Those crimes under the new law will receive sentences of life without the possibility of parole.

Only four types of crimes can now be considered grounds for receiving a death penalty sentence: killings motivated by terrorism, murders of children 14 or younger, killings by an incarcerated person with a previous "aggravated murder" sentence, and pre-meditated killings of police or corrections officers.

The law is not retroactive and will not affect the sentencing of the 30 people currently on death row.

The death penalty remains legal in 29 states, but only a handful regularly conduct executions. Brown extended a 2011 moratorium on the death penalty, and the last execution took place in 1997.

Nationwide, 1,500 people have been executed since 1976.

Supporters of the change say capital punishment doesn't guarantee justice. Nationally, 166 former death row inmates were found innocent of all crimes and exonerated, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The majority of those found innocent were black.

"Our system of sentencing people to death is unequal and unfair," then-House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson told last month. "It disproportionally applies to poor people and people of color. There are innocent people on death row in this country."

Capital punishment can also be costly. The average death penalty case can take up to 15 years to reach its conclusion and costs the state $1.4 million, as compared to an average cost of $335,000 for a non-death penalty murder case.

"Regardless of how you feel about the death penalty, our system is broken," Williamson said.

The U.S. Justice Department announced last month that it would ramp up its use of capital punishment when Attorney General William Barr instructed the Bureau of Prisons to schedule executions starting in December for five men convicted of killing children.

President Donald Trump has long been a proponent of the death penalty, believing that executions serve as both an effective deterrent and appropriate punishment for some crimes, including mass shootings and the killings of police officers. He said last year that the death penalty should come "into vogue" in response to a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue last year that left 11 dead.

FILE - This Nov. 18, 2011 file photo shows the execution room at the Oregon State Penitentiary, in Salem. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)