Ohio

Ohio

Ohio Reports Highlight Decline in Death Sentences, Emphasize Recent Exonerations

Two recent reports from Ohio highlighted the decline in the use of capital punishment in that state. On March 30, the Ohio Attorney General's Office released its annual report on capital punishment. The Attorney General's report noted three new death sentences, one commutation, and one execution in Ohio in 2014, down from the state's peak of 17 death sentences in both 1995 and 1996.  It also reported that Ohio juries have imposed four or fewer death sentences in each of the last four years. On the same day, Ohioans to Stop Executions (OTSE) issued a complementary report. In addition to the data from the Attorney General's report, OTSE emphasized the exonerations of Ricky Jackson, Kwame Ajamu, and Wiley Bridgeman in 2014. The three former death row inmates were sentenced to death in 1975 based upon the coerced false eyewitness testimony of a 12-year-old boy. The OSTE report also discussed changes to Ohio's lethal injection protocol in the wake of the botched execution of Dennis McGuire, which resulted in the postponement of all executions in Ohio until 2016. Finally, the report discussed the 56 reform recommendations released last year by the Supreme Court Joint Task Force on the Administration of Ohio's Death Penalty, which include measures to reduce wrongful convictions, ban the death penalty for defendants with severe mental illness, and reduce racial and geographic disparities in sentencing.

Ohio Officials Say Death Penalty System Has Serious Flaws

Legislators in Ohio are seeking to enact death penalty reforms as the state grapples with problems in the application of capital punishment. Sen. Bill Seitz, a Republican, and Sen. Sandra Williams, a Democrat, are working on four bills to address some of the reforms recommended by the Ohio Supreme Court Death Penalty Task Force last year. The bills would prevent the execution of defendants with serious mental impairments, establish a fund for indigent defense, require certification of crime labs and coroners, and prohibit convictions where the only evidence is testimony from a jailhouse informant. Since 2003, Ohio has removed 20 inmates from death row through exonerations, clemency, or sentence reductions because of intellectual disabilities. An additional 5 men who had once been on death row, but had their sentences reduced when capital punishment was struck down in the 1970s, were also exonerated and released. Ohio's executions are currently on hold until at least 2016 because of problems with lethal injection. In recent years, several Ohio officials who once supported capital punishment have spoken out against it. Among them is Paul Pfeifer (pictured), a senior justice on the Ohio Supreme Court and the legislative sponsor of the bill to reinstate Ohio's death penalty in 1981, who now says, "I really think it’s time to shake it up and have life in prison without the possibility of parole, to have that be the ultimate penalty available to juries. It is more of a death lottery instead of something that is evenly applied across the state. The correct thing to do is take it off the books."

Mike Farrell: Troublesome Case in Ohio Points to Broader Problems

Mike Farrell, actor and human rights leader, argued in an op-ed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the case of Anthony Apanovitch in Ohio demonstrates several significant problems with the death penalty. Apanovitch was recently granted a new trial, 30 years after he was convicted. Evidence in Apanovitch's case was withheld from his defense, and a DNA test was not performed until decades after the trial. "[W]hen the state seeks the penalty of death -- the one punishment that is irreversible," Farrell wrote, "there is a need for certainty that is at odds with the outrage of the public and the pressure on prosecutors." When a DNA test was eventually performed, it excluded Apanovitch, leading a judge to acquit Apanovitch on one count of rape, dismiss another rape charge against him, remove a specification from the murder charge, and order a new trial on the remaining murder and burglary charges. Farrell, who has been involved in the case for decades, emphasized how the uncertainty of the case effected the victim's family: "For 30 years, the Flynn family has lived with nearly unendurable pain while those in charge of our system have struggled to justify killing Anthony Apanovitch." He concluded, "It is too soon, even after 30 years, to call this case resolved. But it is not too soon to say that the death penalty system is a failure. In fact, it is long past time for us to declare that the death penalty does not serve the interests of society, the interests of victims, or the interests of justice."

INNOCENCE: Former Death Row Inmate to be Exonerated in Ohio After 39 Years

Former death row inmate Ricky Jackson will be formally exonerated on November 21 in Ohio, after spending 39 years in prison. A judge in Cleveland will dismiss all charges against Jackson, with the prosecution in agreement. Jackson is one of three men convicted of the 1975 murder of Harold Franks. The other two defendants, Ronnie and Wiley Bridgeman, were also sentenced to death and have filed a petition for a new trial, but that petition has not yet been resolved. Jackson's death sentence was vacated earlier, and the Bridgeman brothers' sentences were overturned when Ohio's death penalty was found unconstitutional in 1978. The men were convicted on the testimony of a 12-year-old boy who later recanted his testimony, and who now has said he did not witness the crime at all. Several people confirmed the boy was on a school bus at the time of the crime. No other evidence linked the men to the murder. A gun and car seen at the crime scene were linked to a man who was arrested in 1978 for another murder, but he was never charged in Franks' murder. In dropping the charges against Jackson, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty said, "The state is conceding the obvious." Ricky Jackson will be the 148th person exonerated from death row in the U.S. since 1973, the fifth in 2014, and the seventh in Ohio since 1973.

Proposed Ohio Lethal Injection Secrecy Bill May Be Unconstitutional

The Ohio legislature is considering a bill that would prevent the public and the courts from knowing the name of compounding pharmacies that produce lethal injection drugs for the state and the identity of medical personnel participating in executions. Critics of the bill say such interference with the courts and the First Amendment right to free speech would be unconstitutional. At a committee hearing, Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said, "This bill likely will prompt endless litigation – a precise situation you are trying to avoid." Similar secrecy laws in Pennsylvania, Missouri, Arizona, and Oklahoma are being challenged in court by media organizations. The non-partisan Legislative Service Commission also raised constitutional concerns about a provision of the bill that would void any contract if it had a clause prohibiting the sale of lethal injection drugs to the state, saying that could violate state and federal prohibitions against impairing contracts. Ohio State University law professor Doug Berman questioned whether the state should go to such lengths to preserve lethal injection: "If the only way we can preserve this method of execution is by making it more secret, that, to me, is something of a sign that we shouldn't be trying to preserve this method of execution."

NEW VOICES: Judge Calls Ohio Death Penalty Costs 'Astronomical'

County Judge Michael P. Donnelly, a member of Ohio's Death Penalty Task Force appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, recently called the costs of capital trials "astronomical." He went on to say that a county's budget may be a factor in decisions to seek the death penalty: “[W]ith 88 different prosecutors who have complete discretion on whether to pursue it or not, and you have to draw the inference that, in some counties, it’s not pursued because it’s just not economically feasible.” For example, Summit County is facing a 15% overrun of its court indigent defense budget because of five cases in which prosecutors sought the death penalty this year. The most recent capital trial cost the county $102,715, lasted nearly two months, and ended in a sentence of life without parole. Court officials said an aggravated murder case without death penalty charges typically costs $15,000 to $20,000 and lasts only two weeks. The judge added, “There’s no way you can look at the way [the death penalty is] applied in Ohio and draw the conclusion that it’s fair, or that it’s accomplishing what it purports to do — and that is, deliver the most severe punishment to the worst of the worst. It’s just not taking place.”

NEW VOICES: Former Ohio Attorney General Now Opposes Death Penalty and Calls for Reform

Jim Petro served as Ohio's Attorney General and presided over 18 executions. However, he abandoned his support for capital punishment after seeing the risks of wrongful executions: "Our justice system is based on the decision-making of human beings, and human beings are fallible. We make mistakes and our judgments are influenced by biases and imperfect motivations. Implementing the death penalty makes our errors permanent and impossible to remedy." Recently, he called on the Ohio legislature to adopt the reforms recommended by a Task Force appointed by the state Supreme Court, saying, "Without action the death penalty system will continue to be an expensive, unfairly applied, and risk-filled process that has no place in today's criminal justice system." He asked the legislature to require the recording of interrogations, certification of crime labs, and guidelines for prosecutors seeking the death penalty.

Ohio Had Warnings About Lethal Drugs; State's Expert Witness Withdraws

After Ohio's two-hour attempted execution of Rommel Broom (pictured) in 2009, it explored alternative methods, including an intramuscular injection of midazolam and hydromorphone. Gregory Trout, an attorney with the state Department of Rehabilitation and Correction expressed concerns to Dr. Mark Dershwitz, the state's expert witness on lethal injections, about whether these drugs would result in “gasping for air in a hyperventilating fashion, with eyes still open,” and whether it “would create the appearance, at least, of suffering, which would upset witnesses and inspire litigation.” Dr. Dershwitz said such reactions were unlikely. However, Dr. Mark Heath, an anesthesiologist at Columbia University, warned the drugs could create “a terrible, arduous, tormenting execution that is also an ugly visual and shameful spectacle.” Ultimately, the drugs were not used intramuscularly but rather injected into the veins of Dennis McGuire in January 2014, resulting in a prolonged execution in which the prisoner struggled and clenched his fists for an extended period. The same drugs were used in the recent two-hour execution of Joseph Wood in Arizona. Dr. Dershwitz, who had served as an expert on lethal injection for 22 states and the federal government, recently withdrew from further involvement as an expert because Ohio had mischaracterized him as a "consultant."

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