Are the Waning Days of the Death Penalty Upon Us in Ohio?

Earlier this month Ohioans to Stop Executions (OTSE) released their first annual report, “The Death Lottery: How Race and Geography Determine Who Goes to Death Row.” The report preceded the final meeting of a task force established in 2011 by the Ohio State Supreme Court and the Ohio State Bar Association to review the implementation of Ohio’s death penalty statute. Both the OTSE report, as well as the 56 recommendations put forth by the task force demonstrate that Ohio’s death penalty is deeply flawed.

Findings of the Report

In reviewing publically available information from the State Supreme Court, Attorney General’s office, and Department of Corrections, among other sources, concerning the implementation of the death penalty in Ohio, OTSE researchers found that while the overall use of the death penalty in Ohio is slowing down, race of the victim(s) and location of the crime are the most accurate predictors of death sentences.

Of the state’s 88 counties, 10 counties account for the vast majority of capital indictments with Cuyahoga County leading the way. As in most states, county prosecutors are elected, and they are given broad ranging discretion in determining how a case should be charged. Similar crimes may be charged differently from one county to another with little rational as to why.

Data on race of the victim also reveals that the death penalty is applied disproportionately in crimes where the murder victim is white. This stands in sharp contrast to the fact that in Ohio, according to the data cited, 66% of homicide victims are African American or people of color. Of the 320 death sentences issued under Ohio’s current death penalty law, 69% of those sentences were handed down in cases involving white victims and 30% in cases involving victims who were people of color. This data reflects trends that have also been documented in other states. The implicit message is that our legal system values the lives of white victims over the lives of victims of other racial and ethnic backgrounds.

The report also documents:

  • Problems in individual cases of those on death row;
  • Ohio’s troubled record with establishing and following an approved protocol for carrying out lethal injections;
  • Growing support for abolition in Ohio highlighting notable supporters such as Ohio Supreme Court Justice William O’Neil, retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Stratton, Lucas County prosecutor Julia Bates, former Attorney General Jim Petro, and retired Director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections Terry J. Collins.

Kevin Werner, Executive Director of Ohioans to Stop Executions commented, “The only way to fix the death penalty is to get rid of it. Until that day comes … if we have to have a death penalty, let’s make it a fairer one.”

Task Force Recommendations

The task force, convened by the Ohio State Supreme Court and the Ohio State Bar Association in 2011 to review the application of the death penalty in Ohio, came to a similar conclusion—much is needed to ensure that the state’s death penalty statute is applied in a fair and consistent manner. This task force was explicitly barred from making any recommendation around repealing the death penalty.

The panel was selected by Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and the Ohio State Bar Association and included judges, defense lawyers, the Ohio public defender, state lawmakers and law professors. After a two-year review of the death penalty, the group met this month and voted on 56 recommendations—some of which can be implemented by the courts and others of which will require legislative action to adopt.

Some of the key recommendations include:

  • Require DNA evidence or a videotaped confession;
  • Creation of a state death penalty panel run by the attorney general that would approve or disapprove of capital charges sought by county prosecutors;
  • Ban death penalty charges in cases where prosecutors used testimony from jailhouse snitches that was not independently verified by the time jurors weigh the sentence;

  • Pass a law allowing for the filing of racial disparity claims;
  • Ban the execution of defendants who were mentally ill at the time of the crime or at the time of a scheduled execution;
  • Eliminate kidnapping, rape, aggravated arson, aggravated robbery and aggravated burglary as elements of a crime that could lead to a death penalty charge;
  • Study how to best support families of murder/homicide victims in the short and long term.

“Even for death penalty supporters, [these] recommendations should be welcome,” Mike Brickner, of the ACLU of Ohio, said. “At the very least, Ohioans should not tolerate a system that executes people with mental illness, risks executing the innocent, and perpetuates unfair discrimination in our justice system. If Ohioans insist on keeping the death penalty, officials must do all they can to address these fundamental problems.”

You can read “The Death Lottery: How Race and Geography Determine Who Goes to Death Row” and access a searchable database of all 56 recommendations by the task force on the OTSE website.

Source: National Coalition to End the Death Penalty