Revisited split jury cases pose challenges for victims and prosecutors in Oregon

The court cases of Oregonians who were convicted of felonies in split juries are now getting a second look, after a change in state law last year.
Published: Nov. 9, 2023 at 11:26 AM PST|Updated: Nov. 9, 2023 at 5:12 PM PST
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SALEM Ore. (KPTV) -The court cases of Oregonians who were convicted of felonies in split juries are now getting a second look, after a change in state law last year. While some people currently or formerly incarcerated may get a chance to clear their names or be released from prison early, this sweeping change in the state’s legal system can create uncertainty for victims who thought they had closure.

At the end of 2022, the Oregon State Supreme Court Case, Watkins v. Ackley ruled anyone who was convicted by a non-unanimous jury verdict has a constitutional right to have their case re-evaluated. The Oregon Department of Justice says there are at least 676 of cases statewide where defendants can be re-tried, re-sentenced, or have their cases dismissed altogether.

One of those defendants is Kenneth Hamilton, whose case is playing out in Multnomah County, he is currently out of prison on pre-trial release.

“So I found out about the Watkins ruling in December of last year and it was basically like, four months later I was on the streets,” said Hamilton.

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In 1998, Hamilton was charged with two counts of first-degree manslaughter and reckless driving in connection with the deaths of Michelle Thiel and Gregory Hunter after allegedly hitting their car in a DUI crash in North Portland. When FOX 12 Investigates met with Hamilton last month, he and his attorney would not speak about specific details of the case and the crash all those years ago because of the legal proceedings still playing out. Hamilton, however, did provide insight into how the legal process is playing out to have his non-unanimous jury case brought up in court once again.

Hamilton was found guilty in his case and sentenced to over 30 years in prison in 1999. One juror, however, found him not guilty. It is unclear why this lone juror made this decision. Now, with the Oregon Supreme Court ruling that cases like Hamilton’s, where a jury finds a defendant guilty through a non-unanimous verdict, defendants have a right to start the legal process all over.

“So I was sentenced to 375 months in prison before the ruling came down, I had completed almost 25 years of it,” said Hamilton. “So right now the process that I’m in is they could either retry me and have me serve out the remainder of the sentence, or we can negotiate a deal.”

The influx of cases like Hamilton’s is an added workload on local district attorney’s offices. A statement from the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office says the average time it takes to resolve these kinds of cases is about 113 days, and that re-trying the cases from a prosecutor’s perspective can be challenging because oftentimes it can be difficult to track down evidence due to the age of the cases, as well as the impact on victims.

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Rosemary Brewer, an attorney and director of the Oregon Crime Victims Law Center says these cases playing out in court again can be re-traumatizing for crime victims and their families.

The full FOX 12 Investigates interview with investigative reporter Adrian Thomas.

“A lot of victims aren’t even aware that this was an issue,” said Brewer. “Either they didn’t know that the decision in their case was not unanimous, they haven’t kept up with the changes in the law, and why would they? Most people just go on with their lives.”

For the family of one of Hamilton’s victims, Michelle Thiel, news of Hamilton’s prison release came as a surprise. Thiel’s husband at the time, Kolin Thiel, expressed concern in a statement to FOX 12 Investigates:

“Writing this takes me back to day one feeling anger, anxiety of Kenneth Hamilton’s actions that day.

This was not an accident. This was a foreseeable tragedy with drinking, drugs, excessive speed through a neighborhood…Kenneth Hamilton by now should understand that taking responsibility means accepting the consequences of his actions and serving his full sentence term in prison….

There is also the deep frustration at the State of Oregon never receiving a call or letter giving us the heads up he was being released.”

Brewer says her organization has observed instances of non-unanimous jury cases being re-visited without victims being notified. She says victim advocates in district attorney offices or victims’ services staff in the state justice department should be alerting victims and their families if someone has been released from prison.

“What we’re asking is that victims be consulted before making these decisions,” said Brewer. “Under the Oregon constitution, victims have a right to a meaningful role in the criminal justice system.”

For Kenneth Hamilton, he says he’s anxious to start his life over and make up for lost time with his family. Hamilton says he is taking classes at Portland State University and working a job while the legal process in his case plays out.

“I believe everybody has a chance to come home,” said Hamilton. “I believe that while they’re in there, they should do everything they can to make themselves a better person, so when they come out, they can be assets to their community.”

Hamilton’s next court date is set for early next year.