Oregon court ruling opens door for death penalty reversals

Oregon court ruling opens door for death penalty reversals

SALEM, Ore. (KOIN) — The Oregon Supreme Court struck down the death sentence of an inmate in a ruling Thursday that could impact other inmates on death row.

David Ray Bartol was convicted of aggravated murder in 2016 for killing an inmate in the Marion County Jail. The Marion County District Attorney’s Office said Bartol stabbed Gavin Siscel through the eye with a homemade shank, then used his own shoe as a hammer to pound the shank through Siscel’s brain. Siscel was reportedly watching TV when Bartol attacked him without warning. Siscel was mentally ill and was serving a contempt sentence for acting out in court.

A two-month trial concluded with a 12-person jury deciding that Bartol should be given the death penalty.

Bartol appealed his sentence, with his lawyers arguing a state law that narrowed the death penalty should apply to his case. That law — SB 1013 — was passed in 2019 and altered the definition of aggravated murder, which is the only charge that carries capital punishment in Oregon. Aggravated murder now only applies to those who murder children younger than 14, those who murder law enforcement officers, and acts of terrorism that kill multiple people.

On Thursday, the Oregon Supreme Court affirmed Bartol’s conviction but struck down his death sentence. He will now be sentenced for the crime of 1st-degree murder and faces either a life sentence with a 30-year minimum or a true life sentence.

David Ray Bartol. (Marion County District Attorney’s Office)

While SB 1013 included a provision that did not make it retroactive, the court’s ruling appears to do just that, relying on a section of the state’s Constitution that prohibits disproportionate punishments.

“What the court held today was that in Mr. Bartol’s case, his death sentence was unconstitutional and therefore they reversed it and they remanded him to be resentenced,” said Jeffrey Ellis, attorney and director of the Oregon Capitol Resource Center. Ellis was part of the legal push to get Bartol resentenced.

Thursday’s decision could eliminate the death sentence for many — if not all — previously convicted inmates facing capital punishment in Oregon.

“Everybody that’s under a death sentence is under a death sentence by virtue of the old law because their crimes have been reclassified and are now not subject to death. The Oregon Supreme Court said ‘well, wait a minute, it would be unconstitutional to execute those people for crimes Oregon no longer thinks are subject to the death penalty,'” said Ellis.

Plenty of critics are speaking out against the ruling as it opens the door for old death row cases to be re-examined.

“It is likely that no inmate currently sentenced to death in Oregon, regardless of how violent or vicious their crimes or how vulnerable their victims, legally qualifies under the new statutory definition of aggravated murder,” said Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson. “David Bartol is likely only the first beneficiary in what will be a chain reaction of new sentences for the most horrific of crimes by the most dangerous of offenders.”

FILE – This Nov. 18, 2011, file photo, shows the execution room at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Ore. The Oregon Supreme Court stuck down the death sentence of an inmate in a ruling, Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021, that found lawmakers had fundamentally altered “prevailing societal standards” for executions with a 2019 law change. Experts believe the decision could eliminate the death sentence for all inmates facing the penalty. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Former Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis said the death penalty should stand as a deterrent for a small number of killers “because of the cruelness and viciousness of their crime, and the risk that they will continue to kill others.”

Marquis said a few such killers, including one man he tried four separate times starting in the late 1980s, could possibly win parole with this ruling.

“There are roughly four of the worst murderers in prisons who will be eligible for immediate release under parole. It doesn’t necessarily mean they will be released, but the victims will have to undergo parole hearings and they could be released,” he said.

Marquis added that he doesn’t trust Oregon to properly enforce life sentences and he doesn’t think the majority of voters will agree with what’s happening.

“I think it’s a travesty, I think it’s not even conducive with the law, and it certainly isn’t conducive with the public opinion in Oregon,” he said. “For me, who’s defended and prosecuted capital cases, this is a very bitter pill.”

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