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Oregon Supreme Court vacates death sentence

Oct. 7 (UPI) -- The Oregon Supreme Court on Thursday overturned the death sentence for a man convicted of killing a cellmate in 2013, possibly setting the stage for all other death sentences in the state to be vacated.

The state's highest court upheld the murder conviction of David Bartol but ordered him to be resentenced, likely to life in prison. The justices said the circumstances of the murder he committed don't fit new guidelines for which crimes are considered capital offenses.

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Bartol was serving a 30-day sentence in Marion County Jail when he killed fellow inmate Gavin Siscel on June 4, 2013.

Under a change in the law in 2019, only certain murders can now be considered capital offenses, including that of children younger than 14 years old, law enforcement officers, terror attacks in which at least two people die, and in-prison slayings in which the offender had previously been convicted of murder.

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Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that lawmakers, when they passed the updated law, included a provision that would not make it retroactive before 2019. The Oregon Supreme Court, though, appears to set a precedent allowing for it to be applied to the older cases, saying the state Constitution doesn't allow disproportionate punishments.

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"The enactment of SB 1013 reflects a legislative determination that, regardless of when it committed, the conduct that had constituted 'aggravated murder' does not fall within the narrow category of conduct for which the death penalty is appropriate," the court's opinion says.

"Given that determination, we conclude that, although the legislature did not make SB 1013 retroactive as to sentences imposed before its effective date, maintaining defendant's death sentence would violate" Oregon's Constitution.

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The 29 people currently on Oregon's death row could also see their death sentences reduced under similar rulings, advocates say.

"The Oregon Supreme Court just issued an opinion that seems to indicate that any death sentences imposed in Oregon before 2019 are invalid," anti-death penalty advocate Sister Helen Prejean said.

"My expectation is that every death sentence that is currently in place will be overturned as a result of this," Jeffrey Ellis, co-director of the Oregon Capital Resource Center, told the OPB.

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The Portland Mercury reported that even though the state hasn't executed anyone since 1997, the continued use of the sentence in courts costs the state an additional $800,000 to $1 million per death penalty case.

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