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Lawsuit: Oregon Gov. Kate Brown unlawfully commuting prison sentences

The lawsuit claims Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has ignored victim rights while granting clemency to inmates.

EUGENE, Ore. — Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has ignored victim rights while granting clemency to inmates, Lane County District Attorney Patty Perlow and others argue in a legal petition.

Perlow, along with Linn County DA Douglas Marteeny and four surviving victims, are asking a Marion County Circuit Court judge to compel Brown, the Oregon Department of Corrections, the Oregon Youth Authority and the state’s parole board to "comply with the law."

Salem-based Mannix Law Firm and Common Sense for Oregon filed the lawsuit online Wednesday on behalf of Perlow, Marteeny and the other plaintiffs. Kevin Mannix, a former chair of the Oregon Republican Party, leads both the law firm and the organization.

A spokeswoman for the governor said the office "generally does not comment on matters of pending litigation."

The plaintiffs' request comes as 73 inmates who were juveniles convicted as adults before Jan. 1, 2020, are able to request parole board hearings for a possible early release. Hearings are expected to begin this spring, a spokesperson for the governor told a Register-Guard reporter last year.

Brown announced she was using her clemency powers to let those inmates benefit from Oregon Senate Bill 1008, which passed in 2019 and reforms the juvenile justice system. Among other things, the bill eliminates life without parole sentences for youths and gives them a "second look" hearing for a possible release after serving half their sentence. It's also intended to correct any unjust lengthy sentences.

Several Oregon district attorneys, including Perlow, criticized Brown for not notifying victims or their families before publicly releasing the inmates' names on Oct. 20.

The entire process fails to ignore victim impact from the crimes, Perlow said.

"The Governor’s priority is offenders of crimes, many of them violent, and ensuring they have a 'meaningful opportunity to be released' before they complete their duly secured criminal sentences," she said in a statement about the legal petition. "Victims of crime, and all other Oregonians, deserve the enforcement of their rights. It is essential that all Oregonians, including public officials, adhere to the rule of law."

Perlow added she feels "obligated" to ask a judge to intervene and to "raise public awareness of this violation of our state Constitution and the laws surrounding process and transparency in our criminal justice system."

In the lawsuit, she and the other plaintiffs say most of the 74 granted clemency in October — and nearly all of the 953 people released so far as part of Brown’s use of her clemency powers — have not applied for clemency.

Inmates in Oregon must apply for clemency, and an application states the governor will grant clemency only in "exceptional cases when rehabilitation has been demonstrated by conduct as well as words."

State law requires the governor to then notify the district attorney of the county where the conviction took place and others and requires the DA to notify the victim and provide specific information to the governor.

That didn't happen with the commutation order in October, plaintiffs say.

"District attorneys and citizens across the state are voicing their shock and outrage at this sweeping and reckless action by the Governor, fully outside the parameters of Oregon's established clemency process, denying district attorneys and victims the opportunity to participate as required by law," the lawsuit reads.

Plaintiffs also argue Brown is violating state law by delegating her clemency power to the Department of Corrections and the parole board, which has been considering the early release of inmates "over whom they have no jurisdiction."

Additionally, the lawsuit argues Brown:

  • Has broad clemency powers subject to regulation and has "abandon all clemency process and procedure as abandoned by law"
  • Unlawfully extended her clemency powers because some of the inmates won't be eligible until after she leaves office. Brown already has announced she isn't running for governor again.
  • "Refused to involve victims" in the process as required by law
  • Made Senate Bill 1008 retroactive when she doesn't have authority to do so
  • Has illustrated her "willingness to act outside the restrictions on her clemency power."

Marteeny said the lawsuit is "not personal" and that he got involved because he believes Brown isn't following the law.

"The Governor and I simply disagree on the extent of her powers," he said in a statement. "I believe our laws put limits on her actions. I am working to enforce those limits."

The four people who joined Perlow and Marteeny in the lawsuit are surviving family members or loved ones of crime victims:

  • Randy Tennant, whose mother Donna Tennant was killed by her grandson Andrew Johnson in 2012, when Johnson was 17
  • Samuel Williams, whose daughter Jessica Williams was stabbed to death and mutilated then set on fire by Carl Alsup and two others in 2003, when Alsup was 17
  • Amy Jones, Jessica Williams' sister
  • Melissa Grassl, whose life partner Austin French was shot in the head three times in 2006 by his brother Cayce French, who was 17 at the time

Editor's Note: The video at the top of this article is a KGW Straight Talk episode from Nov. 12, 2021 about Oregon Senate Bill 1008

RELATED: Straight Talk: Oregon inmates who committed serious crimes as teens get chance for early release through governor’s clemency order

RELATED: Oregon governor commutes sentences of 74 prisoners convicted as teens, opening up possibility for early release