In a landmark decision that could mark the end of the state’s death row, the Oregon Supreme Court on Thursday vacated the death sentence of 50-year-old David Ray Bartol because the crime he committed is no longer statutorily eligible for the death penalty (article available here).
In 2016, a jury convicted Bartol of aggravated murder for fatally stabbing a fellow inmate. As a result of the conviction, Bartol was sentenced to death.
Then in 2019, the state Legislature passed Senate Bill 1013, which reclassified cases previously categorized as “aggravated murder” to “murder in the first degree,” which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole. In other words, the bill effectively eliminated death sentences for most murder convictions in the state.
Bartol is one of 25 inmates remaining in Oregon Department of Corrections custody who were sentenced to death. It appears likely their death sentences may be overturned as well.
In reversing Bartol’s death sentence, the Oregon Supreme Court relied heavily on the concept of “evolving standards of decency,” a standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court for determining whether a punishment violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“Our task is not to determine the application of SB 1013 to defendant’s sentence,” the court wrote. “Maintaining his death sentence would allow the execution of a person for conduct that the Legislature has determined no longer justifies that unique and ultimate punishment,” the court wrote, “and it would allow the execution of a person for conduct that the Legislature has determined is no more culpable than conduct that should not result in death.”