The U.S. attorney general has directed federal prosecutors in Oregon not to seek the death penalty in the kidnapping, torture-style murder and racketeering conspiracy cases pending against accused members of the Gypsy Joker Outlaw Motorcycle Club.
The decision was forwarded July 1 to the Oregon judge handling the case — that’s about 3 ½ weeks before Attorney General William P. Barr announced Thursday that the federal government would resume death penalty executions after a 16-year hiatus.
No offenders prosecuted in Oregon currently are on federal death row.
In the motorcycle club prosecution, the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., reviewed the case and made a recommendation.
Steven Mygrant, a federal prosecutor in Oregon, then informed U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones.
“The government will not be seeking the death penalty against indicted and death-eligible defendants Earl Fisher, Mark Dencklau, Tiler Pribbernow, Ryan Negrinelli, Chad Erickson, or Joseph Folkerts,” Mygrant wrote.
Mygrant’s letter this month didn’t explain what led to the decision and federal officials declined further comment.
Two of the six who are charged in both the racketeering conspiracy and the killing of a former club member have entered guilty pleas to racketeering. They are Pribbernow and Fisher.
A seventh defendant, Kenneth Earl Hause, the national president of the outlaw motorcycle club, wasn’t charged with a death penalty-eligible offense and is accused only in the racketeering conspiracy.
The judge had pressed prosecutors to decide as soon as possible whether to seek the death penalty.
The racketeering charges stem from the 2015 kidnapping and death of Robert “Bagger” Huggins, 56.
Portland’s Gypsy Joker president Mark Leroy Dencklau was accused of ordering the 2015 kidnapping and killing of Huggins, according to Pribbernow, who has cooperated with the government. Others carried it out, he said.
The attack was in retaliation for Huggins’ robbery at Dencklau’s Woodburn home earlier that month, the government has alleged.
The prosecution’s case largely rests on Pribbernow, the man who wielded the fatal blow with a baseball strike to the head, according to lawyer Matthew Schindler, who represents co-defendant Negrinelli.
Schindler said he believes the government recognized that “the optics of attempting to execute those with lesser roles when it had already waived the death penalty for Pribbernow were problematic.’’
The move also gives the government a tactical advantage because additional defense lawyers with expertise in capital murder cases usually are removed from the defense teams once the death penalty is off the table, Schindler said.
In 2014, then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder directed federal prosecutors in Oregon not to seek the death penalty against two white supremacists, David “Joey” Pedersen and Holly Ann Grigsby, indicted on racketeering conspiracy and other charges in the killing of four people in three states.
But that case was jeopardized by government and state police mishandling of evidence, according to a federal judge. Ultimately, Pedersen and Grigsby entered guilty pleas and were sentenced to life in prison.
The federal government has executed three inmates since it reinstated the death penalty in 1988, including Timothy J. McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, in 2001.