State v. Bartol




Oregon Supreme Court

Citation and Year

496 P.3d 1013 (2021)

Constitutional Provision or State Statute

Oregon Const., art. 1, §16 (“Cruel and unusual punishments shall not be inflicted. All penalties shall be proportioned to the nature of the offense.”)

Nature of Case

David Bartol was in jail awaiting trial on a different matter when he killed another person who was in custody. Bartol was convicted of “aggravated murder” for the killing and sentenced to death. Subsequent to Bartol’s conviction and sentence, Oregon lawmakers prospectively reclassified the conduct that had constituted “aggravated murder” as “murder in the first degree,” thus eliminating the death penalty as a possible sentence. On appeal, Bartol argued that the sentencing reform, while only prospective, indicated a change in contemporary standards of decency that rendered his death sentence unconstitutional.


The death penalty was disproportionate in Bartol’s case and therefore violated the cruel and unusual and proportionate penalties clause of the Oregon Constitution.


The court began by noting the overlapping analyses of both the 8th Amendment and art. 1, §16 of the Oregon Constitution:

“(1) each provision prohibits disproportionate sentences; (2) whether a sentence is disproportionate is to be determined based on current societal standards; (3) legislative enactments are strong indicators of current societal standards, but are not dispositive of whether a sentence comports with those standards; and (4) when determining whether a sentence comports with those standards, courts also consider, among other things, how the gravity of the crime compares to the severity of the sentence and how the severity of the sentence compares to the severity of sentences imposed for other crimes.”

But the Oregon antipunishment clause contains an additional “proportionality requirement,” and when construing the clause “this court has built on federal precedent” and “held that whether a sentence is a disproportionate punishment depends on current societal standards.” The court also reviewed prior cases that analyzed the history of the state antipunishment clause, and noted the reliance on William Blackstone’s views by “the drafters of early American state constitutions” — especially the view that criminal penalties must be proportionate to both the offense and to the legitimate purposes of punishment: “Blackstone, the court recounted, had ‘maintained that punishment should be proportional to the offense in question and to the social aims of criminal punishment generally. The method … of inflicting punishment ought always to be proportioned to the particular purpose it is meant to serve, and by no means exceed it[.]’” (quoting 4 William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England 12 (1769)).

And because death is the most severe sentence, it must be limited to “the worst of the worst” — i.e., “those offenders who commit ‘a narrow category of the most serious crimes’ and whose extreme culpability makes them ‘the most deserving of execution.’” By narrowing the circumstances in which a death sentence is allowed and removing Bartol’s conduct in particular, the legislature made clear that he cannot be considered among “the worst of the worst,” that his death sentence is inconsistent with contemporary standards of decency and, therefore, the Oregon state constitution.