Oregon Supreme Court Ruling Paves Way to Overturn State’s Remaining Death Sentences

Oregon prisons currently house two dozen inmates sentenced to death.

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.

In 2016, a jury convicted Bartol, once a member of the Krude Rude Brood gang, of aggravated murder for fatally stabbing a fellow jail inmate in the eye while awaiting trial for an unrelated case. As a result of the conviction, a Marion County circuit judge sentenced Bartol 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.

After its passage, SB 1013 sparked concern and confusion among lawmakers and legal experts, including Solicitor General Benjamin Gutman, who argued the bill could be applied retroactively to past death sentences, contrary to the proclaimed intent of the bill’s sponsors and the governor.

“I think everyone is clear, the law is not intended to be retroactive,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said during a 2019 call with reporters. “My intention was that it was not retroactive.”

But Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson said in a statement Oct. 7 that today’s Supreme Court decision “all but promises” that anyone who was previously sentenced to death in Oregon under the earlier definition of aggravated murder can now seek resentencing.

“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,” Clarkson said. “To those victims, I apologize. Not for the efforts of my office to hold offenders like David Bartol accountable, but because our system has failed you.”

Bartol is one of 25 inmates remaining in Oregon Department of Corrections custody who were sentenced to death, according to data provided by DOC. It appears likely their death sentences may be overturned as well.

“Our task is not to determine the application of SB 1013 to defendant’s sentence,” Oregon Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Duncan wrote in today’s opinion.

Instead, she said, the court must evaluate the constitutionality of Bartol’s sentence “in light of current societal standards,” under Article 1, Section 16 of the Oregon Constitution, which says that “cruel and unusual punishments shall not be inflicted, but all penalties shall be proportioned to the offense.”

Duncan concluded, in light of the enactment of SB 1013, that Bartol’s sentence violated the state constitution.

“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,” Duncan 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.”

Today’s decision does not mean Bartol will be released from custody anytime soon. In its opinion, the Supreme Court affirmed Bartol’s conviction and remanded his case to the Circuit Court for resentencing.