The trial of a Myrtle Creek man accused of aggravated murder is not scheduled until September 2020, but the outcome of a possible special session of the Oregon Legislature may impact whether Troy Russell Phelps is tried for aggravated murder or a straight murder charge.
Prosecutors can’t comment on the case, but the difference could mean the state chooses to pursue the death penalty for aggravated murder, or life in prison for a murder charge if the defendant is convicted. It could be the first case in Douglas County affected by the law, which is scheduled to go into effect on Sept. 29.
Phelps, 34, is accused of killing 26-year-old Brandon Michael, also of Myrtle Creek, on May 31, 2017, at Lawson Bar along the South Umpqua River south of Tri City. Phelps is also accused of kidnapping Michael’s girlfriend and her 10-month-old baby and taking them to a residence in Myrtle Creek after Michael was killed.
A Myrtle Creek man has been charged with murder in the May 31 shooting that took place near …
Phelps was in Douglas County Circuit Court on Tuesday as his attorney, Elizabeth Baker, continued her efforts to subpoena some information from the Oregon Department of Human Services to prepare her defense in the case.
The case is one of several around the state where prosecutors are waiting to see if a bill to restrict the death penalty gets changed later this month in a special session of the Oregon legislature.
During legislative hearings, lawmakers said the bill would not apply to previous cases in which offenders had already been sentenced.
However, recently the Oregon Department of Justice said that the law could potentially be applied to the 30 inmates on Oregon’s death row who can still appeal. That means if a death row inmate’s case was sent back for resentencing, Senate Bill 1013 could bar prosecutors from again seeking a death penalty if the case does not fit the new death penalty guidelines set out in the bill.
Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, one of the main proponents of the bill, has said that’s not what he intended and wants to change that part of it. The legislature is expected to hold a special three-day session in two weeks with one day of the session set aside to deal with making a change on the retroactive part of the bill.
The new law would make it more difficult for prosecutors to seek the death penalty, limiting the types of crimes that would be punishable by death. Only the killing of a child under age 14, killing two or more people in a terrorist act and killing a police officer, and convicted murderers who kill another prisoner while incarcerated would be included.
But the change could act retroactively, affecting those already convicted of aggravated murder, according to the Oregon solicitor general.
Douglas County District Attorney Rick Wesenberg said district attorneys around the state have been left in limbo.
“We’re evaluating each case on a case-by-case basis, and we’ll evaluate whether the new law changes if there is a special session,” Wesenberg said. “I feel strongly and passionately that this decision should be made by the voters of Oregon because the voters spoke in 1984 and should be allowed to speak again.”