Death Penalty is in decline, but problems remain
Columbus Dispatch, Sept. 10, 2016
Jim Petro commentary: Death penalty is in decline, but problems remain
As Ohio attorney general, I oversaw 18 executions in accordance with Ohio law. As a state legislator before that, I helped write Ohio’s current death-penalty law. We thought maybe it would be a deterrent. Maybe the death penalty would provide cost savings to Ohio. What I know now is that we were wrong. What I am coming to understand is just how wrong we were, and what needs to be done to fix our mistake.
My direct experience with executions makes me more than a mere spectator as Ohio continues to struggle with capital punishment. Since I left office in 2007, I’ve been following developments and watching those most deeply engaged with it.
Earlier this week, Ohioans to Stop Executions (OTSE) released its third report in as many years, providing perspectives on the status of Ohio’s death penalty. I am in agreement with the report, “A Relic of the Past: Ohio’s Dwindling Death Penalty,” which details a continuing decline in executions and new death sentences in Ohio while highlighting the disparities between counties that prosecute death cases.
In 2015, only one new death sentence was handed down. Cuyahoga and Summit counties, two jurisdictions responsible for more than 25 percent of death sentences, initiated zero new death penalty cases last year. In fact, new death sentences overall were down for the fourth year in a row. There were three in 2014, four in 2013, and five in 2012.
It has become clear to me that what matters most is the personal predilections of a county prosecutor. Consider Cuyahoga County, which until 2012 was seeking the death penalty in dozens of cases a year. Last year Cuyahoga County sought none. Crime rates did not plunge. There was a new prosecutor.
On the other hand, consider Trumbull County, with one of the lowest homicide rates of Ohio counties which sentence people to death. Trumbull County leads the state with the highest death-sentence-per-homicide rate. Why? Again, the personal preference of the county prosecutor matters most.
The new OTSE report addresses many other issues, including 13 wrongful convictions and exonerations in Ohio death cases. After serving as attorney general, my chief concern was that our state has sentenced individuals to death or lengthy prison sentences for crimes they did not commit. The National Registry of Exonerations reports that 26 Ohioans were found guilty of murders they did not commit between 1975 and 2015. Half of these wrongfully convicted individuals — 13 of 26 — faced the death penalty, including Clarence Elkins, a man whose claim of innocence gained my support when I was attorney general.
Most urgently in my view, the new report catalogs the reluctance of Ohio legislators to consider most of the 56 recommendations made in 2014 by the Supreme Court Joint Task Force on the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty. The charge to that task force was to find ways to make Ohio’s death penalty more fair and accurate.
Only a handful of the recommendations have been considered, and not those which would make the biggest difference. For example, the recommendation to narrow the felony murder rule would address much of Ohio’s disparity in death sentencing. Thirteen of the recommendations, individually and collectively, would go a long way toward preventing wrongful convictions. In failing to act, legislators effectively maintain the status quo, which is a broken system that currently serves only the interest of Ohio prosecutors. That is a grave mistake.
Another grave mistake is the terrible suggestion by the director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association that Ohio adopt the gas chamber to conduct executions. I hope Gov. John Kasich and all Ohio legislators soundly reject that notion. It is offensive to the human experience and has no place in our great state.
I am convinced that the death penalty is just not worth it any more, and I don’t think it can be fixed. Starting in January 2017, 28 Ohioans have execution dates. If we’re going to have the death penalty, then it must not be carried out until the legislature implements the task force’s reforms intended to ensure fairness and accuracy.
Jim Petro served as Ohio Attorney General from 2003 to 2007.