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Homicidal Prisoner Fails to Derail Oregon Death Penalty Moratorium

Homicidal Prisoner Fails to Derail Oregon Death Penalty Moratorium

by Mark Wilson

By most any standard, Craig Dennis Bjork, 53, meets the definition of an undeniably dangerous person. Apparently unimpressed by his first five murders, one can only hope that prison officials finally recognize he’s “for real” in the wake of his sixth homicide.

In 1982, Bjork, aka Craig Dennis Jackson, was sentenced to three consecutive life terms for the strangulation deaths of his 19-year old girlfriend, Ramona Yurkew, his two young sons, Joseph and Jason, and Gwendolyn Johnson, 22. All four bodies were found stuffed under beds in his Minneapolis apartment.

“It was like you took the lid off hell, looked inside then put it back on,” said defense attorney Kevin Burke.

In 1984, while serving his life sentences, Bjork threatened to kill a prison guard, asking “What can they do? Give me more time?” Minnesota does not have the death penalty.

While in solitary confinement at MCF Stillwater, Bjork wrote the warden in July 1996, describing himself as “homicidal” and depressed.

“I’m very close to committing mass murder in Stillwater,” Bjork stated. “Trust me minimum 3 bodies, I’d go for 10 & come real close. So how do we handle this? (I’m for real).”

However, Bjork later “recanted” his threat and was returned to general population. Soon thereafter, he beat sex offender Edwin Curry to death with a pipe as they worked alone in the prison kitchen on Thanksgiving Day, 1997. Curry was due to be released within a year.

Bjork claimed the killing wasn’t “personal”; rather, he was simply angry about his living conditions. He told investigators that he murdered Curry to get moved to another cell, according to the Minnesota Supreme Court decision affirming his conviction. “There’s a saying in the business world,” Bjork said. “Location, location, location. Location is everything.”

Curry’s relatives unsuccessfully sued the Minnesota DOC, arguing that a “reasonable prison official would not have allowed Bjork, a five-time murderer and known psychopath who had repeatedly threatened to commit mass murder at [Stillwater] to work alone with another inmate.” The Eighth Circuit disagreed, finding that “prison officials are not required to segregate indefinitely all inmates whose original crimes suggest they might be capable of further violence.” See: Curry v. Crist, 226 F.3d 974 (8th Cir. 2000).

Bjork was sentenced to life without parole for Curry’s murder in 1999. Still grieving his daughter’s death at Bjork’s hands, Dave Yurkew was disgusted by the sentence. “What good is that going to do?” asked Yurkew. “He could kill again. There is nothing that is going to stop him from killing again.” Sadly, he was right.

Following Curry’s murder, Bjork was again segregated in a maximum-security single cell, according to the Minnesota DOC. In January 2013, however, he was transferred to Oregon via an interstate compact agreement and placed in a two-man, general population cell at the Oregon State Penitentiary.

Eight months later, Bjork’s cellmate, Joseph Akins, 45, was found dead on August 17, 2013. The medical examiner determined that he had died due to asphyxiation resulting from strangulation, and the death was ruled a homicide. [See: PLN, Feb. 2014, p.56].

Far from being a “who dunnit,” suspicion quickly focused on Bjork, who was once again placed in segregation. He has not yet been charged with Akins’ murder because Prosecutor Paige Clarkson said she expects a “long-term investigation.”

Officials did not reveal Bjork’s motive for killing Akins, who was serving a life sentence for kidnapping, raping and murdering a young mother.

Unlike Minnesota, killing a fellow prisoner in Oregon may result in a death sentence. Four other Oregon prisoners previously have been sentenced to death for murders committed in prison. Even so, former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on the death penalty and encouraged Oregonians to renew the debate about whether capital punishment should remain a sentencing option in the state – despite objections by one death row prisoner who argued his execution should be allowed to proceed. [See: PLN, Jan. 2014, p.44; June 2013, p.30].

There were concerns that Bjork and his unrepentant penchant for murder, including while behind bars, might derail the death penalty moratorium in Oregon. However, those concerns were put to rest when Governor Kate Brown renewed the state’s moratorium on capital punishment in February 2015.

“There needs to be a broader discussion about fixing the system,” she said. “Until that discussion, I’m upholding the moratorium imposed by Kitzhaber.”

Oregon prisoners facing death sentences remain on death row while the moratorium is in effect, and on October 9, 2015, Governor Brown denied a request for executive clemency filed by Mark Allen Pinnell, 67, who has been awaiting execution since 1988. Pinnell had requested commutation of his death sentence so he could be transferred to a hospice outside of prison due to his serious medical conditions, which include chronic pulmonary disease.

Sources: The Oregonian, Associated Press, www.reuters.com

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Related legal case

Curry v. Crist