Salem, OR – Oregon Governor Kate Brown is continuing to defend her decision to grant clemency to a convicted killer who was serving a sentence of life without parole for shooting a 19-year-old woman in the back of the head and dumping her body on a remote logging road.
Kyle Hedquist was 18 years old when he executed 19-year-old Nikki Thrasher in 1994, KGW reported.
Investigators said he murdered her because he was concerned there was a possibility she might tell police about the burglaries he had committed, KGW reported.
Hedquist was convicted of Nikki Thrasher’s murder in 1995 and sentenced to life in prison without parole, but Brown reversed that sentence “with one swipe of one pen” earlier this month, Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson told KOIN.
“Teenagers, even those who have committed terrible crimes, have a unique capacity for growth and change,” Brown declared in a statement released Tuesday.
“We are a state and a nation of second chances. And that means giving another chance even to Oregonians who have committed crimes that are incredibly hard to forgive,” the governor added.
Brown said she denies “the vast majority” of the requests for clemency made to her office, but that she wants to help those “who have demonstrated that they have made incredible changes in their lives to rehabilitate themselves, take accountability for their crimes, and dedicate themselves to making their communities a better place.”
The governor touted her history of granting clemency to allegedly “nonviolent” inmates “who faced health risks due to COVID-19,” as well as inmates who battled the Labor Day wildfires in 2020.
She further noted that she has made it a point to grant clemency to “Oregonians facing unjustly long sentences for crimes they committed in their youth,” many of whom she described as “people of color.”
Nikki Thrasher’s mother, Holly Thrasher, said she had no idea her daughter’s killer was even being considered for clemency – let alone that Brown had actually granted it – until she was contacted by KOIN, according to the news outlet.
“I am upset. I wasn’t even told,” Holly Thrasher said. “He took the life of my daughter in cold blood. It was a cold-blooded murder. He planned it.”
In the statement released Tuesday, Brown said that notifying victims and their families about clemency applications isn’t her job.
“Ensuring that the families of the victims of these crimes have input in these decisions is incredibly important to me,” the governor claimed, “which is why my office always notifies the district attorney involved in a case when a clemency application is even under consideration…”
Brown said she expects prosecutors to then “reach out to the victim’s family in a sensitive and trauma-informed way.”
“To be clear: my office always takes this step, with every clemency application that is under consideration, so that victims can have a voice in the process,” she added.
Brown’s spokeswoman, Liz Merah, said Hedquist, now 45, spent more than 20 years volunteering for hospice care service duties while incarcerated at the Oregon State Penitentiary, KGW reported.
He won an “honorable mention” in the PEN America 2019 Prison Writing Contest for his memoir piece about caring for dying inmates, according to the news outlet.
“I couldn’t have known all those years ago that death would bring my humanity back,” Hedquist wrote, according to KGW. “So I sat, I listened, their teary-eyed regurgitation of their crimes burned my ears, they left a bitter taste in my mouth as I consumed the confessions … but somehow just being with them and listening lightened their burden before death stepped in to take them.”
Douglas County District Attorney Richard Wesenberg objected to Hedquist’s clemency application in a letter to Brown, noting that Hedquist has been “uninterested in having his version of events be based in reality,” KOIN reported.
“There are thousands of pages of discovery on this case, and yet large swaths of Hedquist’s petition are completely unsupported by any of them,” Wesenberg wrote in the letter. “In fact, many statements fly in the face of the evidence.”
The prosecutor noted that he was concerned that granting Hedquist clemency would “erode faith in the justice system,” KOIN reported.
“Specifically, clemency for Hedquist will demonstrate that a life sentence without the possibility of parole does not really mean a true-life sentence,” Wesenberg wrote in his letter to Brown.
The governor ignored his concerns and signed off on the convicted killer’s release.
Hedquist walked out of prison earlier this month and went to live with a former prison chaplain in Salem.
He must wear an ankle bracelet for at least six months and is required to cooperate with community supervision for the rest of his life.
Clarkson and Marion County Sheriff Joe Kast blasted the “sudden and ill-planned governor’s commutation” in a public safety notice issued on April 23, KGW reported.
“Hedquist tricked the victim into driving him to a rural Douglas County location where he shot the victim execution-style in the back of the head and dumped her body along the road,” Clarkson and Sheriff Kast said. “Hedquist admitted killing her to eliminate a witness in hope of preventing his own capture.”
Clarkson told KOIN that releasing convicted killers like Hedquist is “not reflective of public safety.”
“This particular release into this community just seemed inappropriate for Marion County and wasn’t done with the appropriate protocol and the proper risk assessment and safety measures in place,” the prosecutor said. “The only thing that my sheriff and I were left to do was just let people know that it was happening.”
Clarkson said she has been contacted by many other victims who are frustrated with today’s legal system, KOIN reported.
“I think what it’s telling them is they don’t matter, that these offenders are being prioritized over them and over what happens to them, their families and what is appropriate for public safety,” Clarkson told the news outlet. “We need victims to trust us. We need them to participate. We need them to be willing to come to court and to hang in there with us.”
She said the community has “a right to expect better” from state leadership “and to expect that they’re going to protect us in a way that we deserve,” KOIN reported.
Brown said in her statement on Tuesday that she is “disappointed” in the many district attorneys who she claimed “have chosen of late to score political points” by allegedly attempting to “stoke public fear” regarding the inmates to whom she has granted clemency.
“The Oregonians granted clemency have demonstrated that they have turned their lives around and pose a low risk to anyone in the public,” the governor asserted. “It will always be easier to stoke fear and anger than to build understanding, compassion, and healing in our communities. But that doesn’t make it right.
Brown has granted 1,148 commutations since she took office in 2015, KGW reported.