In an apparent first for Oregon, a judge ruled that jurors cannot consider the death penalty for a 27-year-old man they found guilty of six counts of aggravated murder, The Oregonian reports. On the 10th day of trial, in the middle of the penalty phase, Circuit Judge Gayle A. Nachtigal stunned prosecutors by saying they hadn’t presented enough evidence to show Petronilo Lopez Minjarez is a continuing threat to society. The ruling raises concerns about the roles of judges and juries, say prosecutors and victim’s advocates. The action could be seen as taking away the right to decide from 12 citizens chosen by defense lawyers and prosecutors.
A jury is required in aggravated murder cases because those carry the death penalty. Josh Marquis, an Oregon prosecutor not involved in the case, called the ruling “a very dramatic step” and said he was concerned defense attorneys in every Oregon death penalty case will argue for the same ruling. Jurors are charged with making “a moral or reasoned decision,” Marquis said, “and the judge has basically pulled the rug out from under them.” Jurors found Lopez Minjarez guilty in the 2004 kidnapping and killing of the 18-year-old son of a man having an affair with Lopez Minjarez’s mother.