What Does Retroactive Actually Mean?

Judge Hammer

Senator Floyd Prozanski stated that he would instruct Governor Kate Brown to arrange a special meeting to ensure that the disputable law, Senate Bill 1013, does not apply to death penalty cases returned to lower courts for hearings. He explained that everyone involved in the process of passing the bill was determined the bill was not retroactive.

Obviously, “retroactive” has a different meaning for different people. Senator Prozanski provided a limited interpretation, whereas prosecutors presumed it meant the bill excluded all previous cases. The Oregon Department of Justice, however, stated that the legislation covers both past and impending cases. 

Prozanski elaborated on Wednesday that he didn’t intend SB 1013 to cover a subset of capital punishment cases, particularly those that were returned to lower courts for new hearings. He stated that he did designate it to cover impending cases and aggravated murder sentences returned to lower courts for additional trials. 

The Misunderstanding

Prosecutors, however, claim that Senator Prozanski and Representative Jennifer Williamson’s innuendos to retroactivity did not make such distinctions. Kevin Barton, Washington County District Attorney, highlighted that the reasonable interpretation of “not retroactive” is that it would be applied to forthcoming cases. 

In late emails sent to prosecutors, the solicitor general of the Oregon Department of Justice stated that the state’s brand-new aggravated murder legislation covers new trials. But he highlighted it applies to the impending cases as well — the assumption that bewildered Barton as well as other district attorneys. 

What Does the New Law Cover?

It is not rare for aggravated murder or death sentences to be annulled on appeal. During the previous 21 and a half years, even seven cases were overturned. Neither of 31 individuals on Oregon’s death sentence used their court challenges. 

The brand new legislation restricts the notion of aggravated murder, the sole crime in the State of Oregon qualified for the death penalty. It is now restricted to offenders who:

  • Murder two or more individuals as a deed of organized terrorism;
  • Murder a minor under 14 years of age with premeditation;
  • Murder another individual during the sentence for previous homicide; 
  • Murder a police officer, as well as probation and correctional officer.

In the legislative meeting, Williamson replied to concerns about the ways the new bill would be administered. The first thing she mentioned is that it does not apply retroactively, but only to forthcoming cases. Last month, she also explained that Senate Bill 1005, unrelated to the disputable act, would make sure SB 1013 would not include offenders who received the death penalty which was later overturned.

A Drafting Mistake

Williamson, a lawyer herself, stated that legislators wanted their intention to be straightforward. Following the recommendations of legislative lawyers, they included the language when the aggravated murder law was adopted by both the House of Commons and Representatives. 

An attorney by profession, Senator Prozanski explained that he was stunned to discover the Department of Justice view. He depicted the disconnection between the legislator’s intention and the law’s language as a drafting mistake that should be corrected prior to September 29, the legislation’s effective date. He stated that that was an omission, an error similar to those that might and have appeared in various acts before. He added that the mistake was due to the lawmakers’ assumption that the way the act was written will properly convey their intentions.

In his email to prosecutors, Benjamin Gutman, the solicitor general, explained that the directives of the new bill cover the crimes done prior to, on, or following the effective date. Also, it covers the cases whose sentencing is due to on or following September 29. Therefore, if the sentencing is scheduled after September, the new law will apply to it.

The Origin of Confusion

The problem emerged last week while the agency was reviewing the verdict of the Washington County trial court. It was related to Martin Allen Johnson who was accused of raping and killing a 15-year-old girl from Tigard back in 1998. After he slaughtered her, he threw her body from the Astoria bridge. 

Immediately after Governor Brown signed the legislation, Johnson’s lawyers inquired whether the law includes their client as well. Eric Butterfield, the Circuit Judge, concluded that, according to the new law, Johnson’s offense is no longer classified as aggravated murder. Thus, he wasn’t suitable for the death sentence.

The director of the Oregon Capital Resource Center and a lawyer, Jeff Ellis, stated that even three legislations — SB1013, 1005, and 1008 contain certain overlaps. However, it is evident that the aggravated murder law covers impending cases, along with those returned to additional trials and hearings. Ellis added that Gutman, the solicitor general, was not the first one to conclude that the bill’s provisions are quite clear. However, numerous regulations make it difficult to peruse all three legislations while trying to grasp the interaction among all three.

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