Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor of the Ohio Supreme Court set in motion a Death Penalty Task Force to examine the conduct of capital punishment in the state. The step makes sense in view of questions raised by the federal courts, and governors granting clemency due to the weaknesses in cases that sent defendants to death row.
The chief justice did not ask the task force to look at whether the state should have a death penalty. She limited the scope, and appropriately so in this instance, to how the system could be improved. She chose a retired and respected state appeals court judge, James Brogan, to lead the panel.
The task force recently issued its first recommendations, signaling a determination to move the state forward. Most significant, it proposed that confessions in death penalty cases should be seen as involuntary at trial unless they are recorded.
Why would anyone confess to a murder they did not commit? Experience shows than in roughly one-quarter of DNA exoneration cases, defendants made incriminating statements, confessed or pleaded guilty. The duty of a state with capital punishment is to erect safeguards against a grievous mistake, killing someone who is innocent.
Current Ohio law does not require admissions in death penalty cases to be recorded on audio or video tape. Yet the record here and elsewhere where the best practice is followed reveals a decrease in false confessions, actually enhancing the role of such admissions as evidence.
The panel made other recommendations, including required testing of evidence at accredited labs and the creation of a state fund to help counties pay for expert witnesses. The worthy objective is taking care with something as final as death.