Gov. Kate Brown’s Decision to Free Oregon Killer ‘Grossly Irresponsible,’ Senator Says


Oregon’s senior U.S. senator blasted Gov. Kate Brown on Wednesday for her decision to commute the sentence of a Douglas County man who was sentenced nearly three decades ago to life without the possibility of parole for shooting a young woman in the back of the head.

Sen. Ron Wyden said Brown’s decision to show mercy to Kyle Hedquist, now 45, “is wrong on every level, starting with its callousness toward the crime victim’s family and extending to all Oregonians counting on public officials to make decisions with public safety in mind.”

“Plain and simple, I oppose this grossly irresponsible use of the clemency powers,” Wyden said in a statement issued by his office.

Brown’s spokesperson, Liz Merah, called Wyden’s comments “surprising.”

“The governor was under the impression that he shares her and President Biden’s values when it comes to second chances and righting the wrongs of a flawed and inequitable criminal justice system,” Merah said in an email. “It is unfortunate that the senator did not make himself familiar with the facts of this case before he made his statements.”

Wyden’s rebuke of the governor represented an unusually public dustup between the Democratic leaders. In a midterm election year when voters nationally are worried about crime, Wyden’s statements don’t come as a surprise, said political science scholars.

Christopher Stout, an associate professor at Oregon State University’s School of Public Policy, said Democrats are typically viewed as weaker on crime and clemency can be an effective talking point for Republican candidates.

“Among the more violent crimes, I think Democrats want to show that they are still tough on these crimes, that criminal justice reform and clemency shouldn’t be in all cases,” Stout said.

Brown is not eligible to run for governor when her term ends at the end of this year. Wyden, first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1996, is seeking reelection.

Jack Miller, a political science lecturer at Portland State University, said Wyden may simply disagree with Brown on this particular case “and instead of keeping it quiet and private, he’s making it public because it doesn’t hurt the Democratic party.”

He said Wyden’s public critique also isn’t likely to hurt Brown since she’s not running for reelection.

Aliza Kaplan, a Lewis & Clark Law School professor who leads a clemency clinic at the college, called Wyden’s comments “incredibly disappointing.”

“Someone like Sen. Wyden should be encouraging more criminal justice reform rather than stoking fear and speaking about cases that in my opinion he doesn’t know much about,” she said.

Brown so far has commuted the sentences of 1,148 people since taking office in 2015, 963 of them for pandemic-related reasons. Some are people serving life sentences for murder and aggravated murder.

Wyden’s spokesperson Hank Stern said the senator spoke out about the Hedquist case after talking with Douglas County District Attorney Rick Wesenberg.

Wesenberg said Wednesday that the senator reached out to him and he briefed him on the case.

Stern said Wyden sees clemency as a tool but views the Hedquist case as “especially egregious.”

“He wanted to respond with a statement that would lead to much greater care about future clemency decisions and he also wanted to send a message that those convicted of the most serious crimes should actually serve their sentences,” Stern said in an email.

Hedquist was convicted in 1995 of aggravated murder in the death of Nikki Thrasher. Hedquist was 18 and a senior in high school at the time; Thrasher was 19.

In a letter to Brown opposing clemency, the district attorney said Hedquist stole from his aunt’s home in 1994 and stashed the goods in a home where Thrasher was living. Thrasher, he said, asked about them and Hedquist then hatched a plan to kill the woman to keep her from telling authorities.

Hedquist then lured her to a wooded area, pulled out a pistol and forced her to walk along a dirt road “so he could find the most appropriate place to kill her,” Wesenberg wrote. Thrasher began to hyperventilate, prompting Hedquist to shoot her in the back of the head, he said. He moved her body off the road and left.

Wesenberg told the governor that Hedquist’s application for clemency mischaracterized the case.

“Hedquist’s strategy seems to be to make up new facts to form a more compelling narrative,” the prosecutor wrote. “There are thousands of pages of discovery on this case and yet large swaths of Hedquist’s petition are completely unsupported by any of them. In fact, many statements fly in the face of the evidence.”

Wesenberg in an interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive said Thrasher had just been released from foster care at the time of her death.

He said his office was unsuccessful reaching the woman’s family during any of Hedquist’s commutation appeals, including the latest one.

The woman’s mother apparently learned of the governor’s decision from a television news reporter. The Oregonian/OregonLive was unable to reach her Wednesday.

This was Hedquist’s fourth clemency application. He submitted his request in September.

Brown granted clemency March 17.

Hedquist was released from the Oregon State Penitentiary on April 15.

He is living with a former prison chaplain in the Salem area and, under the terms of his commutation, will remain on parole for the rest of his life.

Venetia Mayhew, a Portland lawyer who helped prepare Hedquist’s commutation application, said her client has made a complete transformation in his 28 years in prison.

In her appeal to Brown on Hedquist’s behalf, Mayhew detailed Hedquist’s grim childhood, which she said was marked by abuse and neglect.

She also presented the governor with a different account of the circumstances leading to the shooting. She alleged Thrasher demanded money from Hedquist and said if he refused to pay, she’d “unleash all kinds of trouble” on him.

She said Hedquist had not planned on killing Thrasher but panicked and pulled the trigger.

In prison, Hedquist became a leader over time, Mayhew said. He worked as a chapel clerk, studied religion, started a Toastmasters chapter at the Oregon State Penitentiary, served as a longtime hospice volunteer and performed so well at his call center job that he was offered a position as a training specialist upon his release.

His application for clemency included letters from several dozen people, including prison volunteers, incarcerated people and Hedquist’s family.

Merah, Brown’s spokeswoman, said Hedquist “exemplifies the type of personal transformation we should all hope to see from people incarcerated in our criminal justice system.”

“Kyle is absolutely, without exception, the most incredible prisoner in (the Department of Corrections),” Mayhew said. “He is really just the most incredible man. He committed a horrible crime when he was a high school senior, but he has done everything in his power since then to give back, to try to make amends to lead a good life.”