Oregon Gov. Kate Brown Unlawfully Commuted Sentences of Nearly 1,000 Inmates, Lawsuit Claims

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Two Oregon district attorneys and the relatives of three homicide victims on Wednesday accused Gov. Kate Brown of unlawfully freeing nearly 1,000 inmates, filing a new legal challenge that seeks to slam the gate on over 70 proposed commutations.

District attorneys Patricia Perlow of Lane County and Doug Marteeny of Linn County are among the parties alleging Brown has violated clemency procedures that require victim notification. The lawsuit, filed in Marion County Circuit Court, asks a judge to halt Brown from allowing those convicted of crimes as minors from applying for commutation.

“We are asking that the court compel the governor to follow the laws that are already in place,” said Monique DeSpain, a lawyer for the Kevin L. Mannix law firm, which filed the case on behalf of Perlow, Marteeny and the homicide victims’ relatives.

Brown commuted the sentences of 912 inmates who were deemed at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19, according to a June 2021 letter she wrote to state lawmakers. The freed inmates were medically vulnerable, had completed at least half their sentences and were not serving time for crimes against people.

Brown also commuted the sentences of 41 inmates who fought the historic Labor Day 2020 wildfires, according to the June letter, which is cited in the lawsuit. Those released didn’t “present an unacceptable safety, security, or compliance risk to the community,” the letter said.

Forty-four inmates and three jailers have died of COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic, state records show.

The lawsuit claims Brown broke rules requiring individual commutation applications and unlawfully delegated her responsibilities to state agencies.

“This lawsuit is not personal on my part,” Marteeny said in a statement. “I believe our laws put limits on (Brown’s) actions. I am working to enforce those limits.”

Perlow, in a statement, argued Brown was ignoring crime victims’ statutory and constitutional rights. “The Governor’s priority is offenders of crimes, many of them violent,” Perlow said.

A spokesperson for Brown declined to comment.

Aliza Kaplan, a Lewis & Clark Law School professor who frequently helps inmates prepare clemency applications, said the governor’s actions were in line with historical standards.

“She’s using it in the exact way it should be used,” Kaplan told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “These people have been punished significantly, and even in a place like prison, they have managed to rehabilitate themselves, and the governor is offering them mercy.”

The lawsuit also seeks to halt Brown’s reconsideration of youth offenders’ sentences.

The Oregon Department of Corrections said in October that some 250 youth offenders would be eligible for commutation if a 2019 law giving them “second look” hearings halfway through their sentences were to be retroactive.

The law is not retroactive as written. But Brown claims it should be, citing fairness and that many youth offenders “are capable of tremendous transformation,” according to a September letter to the state Department of Corrections.

Brown on Oct. 20 allowed 73 inmates convicted as juveniles to petition the Oregon Board of Parole & Post-Prison Supervision for commutation once they serve 15 years of their sentence — a plan the lawsuit claims unlawfully extends Brown’s clemency powers beyond her term in office.

“District attorneys and citizens across the state are voicing their shock,” the lawsuit claims. “The new process and timelines for commuted felons to petition and meet the Board, and probable outcomes, remain a mystery to the district attorneys and, tragically, to the victims as well.”

The lawsuit’s other plaintiffs are family members of homicide victims who oppose the proposed release of their relatives’ killers. They are:

— Randy Tennant, whose mother Donna Irene Tennant was stabbed to death in her bed by her 17-year-old grandson, Andrew Johnson, in Milwaukie in 2012.

— Samuel Williams and Amy Jones, the father and sister of Jessica Williams, who was stabbed to death underneath Portland’s Steel Bridge in 2003. Carl Alsup, one of three men who stabbed Jessica Williams and burned her body afterward, was 17 at the time.

— Melissa Grassl, whose partner Austin French was shot in the head three times in Gresham in 2006 by his younger brother, Cayce French, who was also 17.