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Lawsuit: Governor unlawfully commuting prison sentences

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Two Oregon district attorneys and the relatives of three homicide victims have filed a lawsuit accusing Gov. Kate Brown of unlawfully freeing nearly 1,000 incarcerated people.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in Marion County Circuit Court, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported.

District attorneys Patricia Perlow of Lane County and Doug Marteeny of Linn County are among the parties alleging Brown has violated clemency procedures that require victim notification. The lawsuit also asks a judge to stop the Democratic governor from allowing those convicted of crimes as minors from applying for commutation.

“We are asking that the court compel the governor to follow the laws that are already in place,” said Monique DeSpain, a lawyer for the Kevin L. Mannix Salem-based law firm, which filed the case with Common Sense for Oregon on behalf of Perlow, Marteeny and the homicide victims’ relatives.

Kevin Mannix, a former chair of the Oregon Republican Party, leads both the law firm and the organization, The Register-Guard reported.

A spokeswoman for the governor said the office “generally does not comment on matters of pending litigation.”

Brown commuted the sentences of 912 people in custody who were deemed at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19, according to a June 2021 letter she sent to state lawmakers. Those freed were medically vulnerable, had completed at least half their sentences and weren't serving time for crimes against people.

Brown also commuted the sentences of 41 people who fought the Labor Day 2020 wildfires, according to the June letter, which is cited in the lawsuit. Those released didn’t “present an unacceptable safety, security, or compliance risk to the community,” the letter said.

Forty-four incarcerated people and three jail employees have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, state records show.

The lawsuit says Brown broke rules requiring individual commutation applications and unlawfully delegated her responsibilities to state agencies.

“This lawsuit is not personal on my part,” Marteeny said in a statement. “I believe our laws put limits on (Brown’s) actions. I am working to enforce those limits.”

Perlow, in a statement, said Brown was ignoring crime victims’ statutory and constitutional rights.

Aliza Kaplan, a Lewis & Clark Law School professor who helps people in custody prepare clemency applications, said the governor’s actions were in line with historical standards.

“She’s using it in the exact way it should be used,” Kaplan told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “These people have been punished significantly, and even in a place like prison, they have managed to rehabilitate themselves, and the governor is offering them mercy.”