The night Patty Butterfield killed her boyfriend, he had slapped her across the face for insulting a friend he'd invited over to do drugs.

It wasn't the first time he'd hit her. Chuck Compton had once slammed her head repeatedly into the side of their trailer outside Cave Junction, Ore. Weeks before Butterfield shot her boyfriend, her son was murdered, and she slipped into a suicidal depression.

That night, she picked up a handgun and fired off more than a dozen rounds, connecting with an antique desk, the walls, windows and a bag of flour, screaming for Compton to leave.

"Chuck was 6-foot-7," Butterfield says. "I didn't want him near me."

He stumbled toward the door, and she remembers him saying, "OK, I'm out of your life." He climbed into his truck and drove away. He made it only 3 miles before Butterfield's bullets stopped him.

Butterfield wrote a suicide note and lay down on her bed, intending to kill herself. Police woke her hours later with the news her boyfriend had bled out in his truck.

"Chuck didn't deserve to die," Butterfield says.

That was 21 years ago. At 73, Butterfield now wants to spend her last years with her family—but because of her Measure 11 conviction she isn't eligible for parole hearings.

Last June, she appealed to the governor, but received no answer.

Critics say when it comes to criminal justice reform, Gov. Kate Brown is ignoring a common-sense fix that matches her stated values: granting commutations.

For the past six years, Oregon Democrats, led by Brown, have moved aggressively to reduce incarceration. They've done so for two reasons: to save money and to address what they say are fundamental inequalities in the system.

The policies are showing results: Growth in the state's prison population has flatlined and turned slightly downward. And last month, lawmakers stripped away portions of Measure 11, the 1994 mandatory minimum sentencing measure that boosted incarceration. But public sentiment may not be keeping pace with the legislative agenda.

Brown, a former juvenile rights lawyer, has been an enthusiastic supporter of criminal justice reforms—but when it comes to making hard decisions that would save the state money and provide mercy for abused women, for whom she's been a powerful advocate, the governor, in the words of two legal experts, has acted with "excessive caution."

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown. (Office of the governor.)
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown. (Office of the governor.)

Butterfield is hardly a public menace.

She works as a hospice volunteer, sitting in Coffee Creek Correctional Facility's infirmary with women who will die behind bars. She has a thick stack of certifications from all the classes she's taken—from quilting to computer skills—and an even thicker stack of letters of support from other women in prison, friends and family, and volunteers who work with her at the prison. She has never been disciplined or cited for bad behavior in prison, according to her petition.

And, it's worth noting, she's filling an expensive prison bed at a cost of $39,514 a year. As long as she's in prison, the state pays for her health care, spending general fund dollars that could go to schools. If she were released and placed on Medicaid, the feds would cover most of her costs.

She is one of 86 people who sought clemency from the governor in 2018. Most of the applicants have already served long sentences for Measure 11 charges.

Many committed crimes after years of abuse. One murdered her husband under the influence of Paxil, a prescription antidepressant known to turn docile people violent. Another was convicted of felony murder after giving a ride to a man who shot a drug dealer.

Measure 11 was a ballot measure passed by voters in 1994. It prescribes mandatory minimums for serious crimes, including robbery and murder. Supporters of the law say it keeps sentencing fair and consistent. Critics say the mandatory sentences limit judicial discretion in cases with complex facts.

For women like Butterfield, who commit violent crimes after enduring years of abuse, a judge might allow for parole hearings earlier. But Measure 11 is unyielding.

Last month, after years of preparation, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1008, which relaxed the sentencing rules for teenagers convicted under Measure 11.

Another pathway to mercy already exists, even for people like Butterfield who were convicted as adults. The governor can grant clemency petitions at her discretion, effectively shortening Measure 11 sentences for inmates who meet the criteria she sets.

Emily Matasar, a Brown aide, says the governor's vision for clemency is that it is "reserved for extraordinary cases."

In an interview, Brown explained her approach.

"I have used my clemency and pardon tool very judiciously," she says. "I think these are extraordinary acts, and I've used them under circumstances where individuals, particularly young people, have made extraordinary changes and dedicated their lives to making their communities better."

Lawmakers may be ready to block prison gates from the outside, but voters may not be as progressive. Pollster John Horvick of DHM Research says on a fundamental criminal justice question—support for the death penalty—voters still lean conservative.

For Brown, that means the political cost of letting prisoners go free could outweigh the benefits.

"Back-end clemency is now often perceived as an attack on law enforcement policies that underlay convictions," write Lewis & Clark College law professor Aliza Kaplan and law clinic staff attorney Venetia Mayhew in an upcoming law review article.

Clemency petitions can sometimes take years to wind their way through a three-part review process by the governor's legal staff. The lawyers gather records from police, prosecutors and prison officials. The most exceptional cases end up on the governor's desk.

Advocates believe Brown has been excessively timid.

"The pardon power has a far more substantial role to play in Oregon's criminal justice system," write Kaplan and Mayhew.

In her first four years in office, Brown has freed four people from prison early, all convicted for crimes committed as teens. She has also pardoned 11 people, reversing convictions after the individual served a full sentence.

Brown has outpaced her predecessor, Gov. John Kitzhaber. But she falls far behind former California Gov. Jerry Brown, who granted 1,746 clemency petitions.

The practice used to be commonplace, even in Oregon. Former Gov. Tom McCall granted dozens of clemency applications. Between 1973 and 1974, he granted 81, according to Lewis & Clark Law Review.

The practice became rarer in the 1980s, as the nation favored tough-on-crime policies. Former Gov. Victor Atiyeh granted significantly fewer petitions between 1979 and 1987. After that, successful petitions were often few and far between.

Bonnie Doan has been imprisoned at Coffee Creek for 11 years for a string of robberies in which she wielded a toy gun spray-painted gray to hold up a Dutch Bros. stand, a Pizza Hut, an Arby's and four other businesses. She still faces at least 12 more years in prison and will be 58 years old before she's released.

Bonnie Doan
Bonnie Doan

When she was a child, Doan's uncle kidnapped her, her siblings and their mother and took them to a remote town in Alaska. Her uncle beat and abused the children there. Doan reported the abuse—to counselors, teachers, even police officers—but no one believed her for years. Finally, her uncle was arrested.

She says her uncle's abusive words played on a loop in her head for years, driving her to use drugs and eventually rob seven shops in three counties with the toy gun in the summer of 2007.

"I just wrecked everything," she says. "I self-sabotaged because I did not know how to ask for help."

Although she was convicted of multiple robbery charges, two judges agreed to sentence her to serve 70 months in prison for each charge concurrently—the minimum sentence allowed under Measure 11. But a third judge demanded 70-month sentences for four remaining robberies be served consecutively—one after the other. In all, Doan will spend at least 23 years in prison.

"Bonnie has served 11 years of a 25-year minimum, which I think is enough," writes Clifford Collins, the man who was working the cash register at the Pizza Hut she robbed. "I believe Bonnie should be given another chance to go home and be a good mother for her children."

Doan says she's sorry for what she did to Collins and others. She mentors young women newly incarcerated at Coffee Creek and prays Brown will answer her plea.

"I hope to get out," Doan says. "I feel I've earned a second chance. I would call it rehabilitated."

Update: The web headline on this story has been changed to reflect that the governor is still reviewing Patty Butterfield's petition.