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State Sen. Bill Kennemer declines to take down TV campaign ad despite pleas from murdered woman’s family

State Sen. Bill Kennemer, R-Oregon City, said he realizes the "sensitive nature of Measure 11 crimes and their impacts on all victim families." As a result, he said he hasn't used the name of the woman who was murdered in his campaign ad. [Oregonlive.com]

Oregon political ads are getting increasingly negative, with less than two weeks until Election Day. For one Oregon woman, an attack ad in a Portland-area legislative race is painfully personal.

Ellie Forness, whose mother was brutally beaten to death five years ago, believes a state senator is capitalizing on her mother’s murder for political gain.

Forness said she’s asked Sen. Bill Kennemer, R- Oregon City, to stop running a TV campaign ad that features her mother’s case and blames Kennemer’s opponent, Mark Meek, for the short prison sentence the teenage killer received under a new law.

Senate Bill 1008, which passed both the House and Senate in 2019 with the support of nearly all Democrats and some Republicans, ended a decades-old practice of automatically sending youths accused of serious crimes to adult court. Instead, it gave prosecutors a very high bar to meet to try juveniles under adult sentencing laws, a change that was hailed by a wide range of supporters as needed.

Forness said the choice to use her mother’s death in the ad greatly upset her and her younger sisters, one of whom has missed work after the ad left her overcome by intrusive thoughts of losing her mother.

“We all know he’s going to be out when he’s 25,” Forness said of the convicted murderer. “We don’t need to be reminded of it every time we watch TV.”

Forness said Kennemer hasn’t responded to her requests. Kennemer told The Oregonian/OregonLive that Forness hadn’t reached out to him. He said Monday he’ll continue to air the ad, which was developed with the support of an Oregon victims’ rights group, Crime Victims United, not the Forness family.

The dispute illustrates an unusual and awkward clash in the victims’ rights community, with the senator and victims’ rights group pushing back against a family reeling from their mother’s violent death.

Forness said no one consulted her family before the ad started running. She said it does not represent her views about the new law or Kennemer’s opponent, whom she met years ago and also knows from her job as a staffer for Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D- Beaverton.

After Forness saw the 30-second clip for the first time last Thursday, she said she asked Kennemer and Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp to stop airing it and apologize. But she said she’s heard nothing from them.

“They’re traumatizing me, they know it, I told them days ago, and they’ve ignored me,” Forness told The Oregonian/Oregonlive.

Knopp didn’t respond to a request for comment Monday or a question about whether the Republican Party has repurposed the ad and is airing it in on behalf of other Republican candidates elsewhere in the state, as Forness said she had heard from people she knows.

Kennemer told the news organization Monday that although his ad references the Forness family’s case, it doesn’t name the deceased, Kimberly Forness, or use her photo or photos of her family. The ad features news headlines about the McMinnville killing that were publicly available, he said.

“Senate Bill 1008 is indeed a traumatizing bill that overturned voter-approved sentencing for some of the worst juvenile offenders,” Kennemer said in an email. “Mark Meek took that vote and didn’t change his mind about it, even though victims came to the Capitol and said they opposed the law.”

Backers argued the bill recognized recent advancements in brain science showing the slow pace at which juvenile brains develop, while opponents said it’d allow depraved killers to soon walk free.

The bill gave judges limited discretion to determine how teen defendants, ages 15 to 17, are tried – as adults or juveniles – for serious crimes such as murder, rape and robbery. If they’re tried as juveniles, as the new law presumed, they must be released from prison by the time they turn 25. That was the case with Kimberly Forness’ murderer.

The ad begins with foreboding music and a narrator briefly laying out the case and sentencing:

“The details are gruesome. The judge called it sadistic. A violent teen sexually assaulted and brutally slayed an Oregon woman. He’ll only serve seven years thanks to Mark Meek.”

(News media headlines from the Kimberly Forness case appear on the screen. Caption flashes onto screen: “BACK ON OUR STREETS AT AGE 25.”)

“Victims warned it was dangerous, but Mark wouldn’t listen.”

(Caption reads: “Victims’ Families Pleaded NO on SB 1008. Meek Voted YES.)

“Violent juveniles are getting reduced sentences for committing dangerous crimes.”

(Caption reads: “Meek Overturned Voter-Approved Sentencing Laws.”)

“And Kate Brown’s made it retroactive, releasing violent felons from prison. This November protect victims. Vote ‘no’ on Mark Meek. Paid for By Friends of Bill Kennemer PAC ID 5885.”

Ellie Forness said she supported Senate Bill 1008, and she hadn’t thought about it applying to her family’s case because the bill’s backers believed it couldn’t take effect retroactively.

In an email to The Oregonian/OregonLive, Meek said the teen killer’s less than decade-long prison sentence was solely the result of the judge’s “refusal to waive the case to adult court, which SB 1008 explicitly allows for in heinous crimes like these.” Meek described the judge’s decision – not the bill – as “outrageous and absurd.”

Steve Doell, president of Crime Victims United, however, said in an email that the ad is meant to send a message that Meek and other lawmakers who supported the bill supported a “travesty” and “deserve to be held to account for their role in putting violent, juvenile offenders back on our streets.”