Maureen O’Connor intends to study “very closely” the final report from the joint death penalty task force delivered last week. The chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court expects that state lawmakers and Gov. John Kasich will do the same. They should take seriously her cue. She rightly noted that the report has been two years in the making, reflecting the time and attention of the panel members and the “thoroughness” of their work.
The chief justice, in conjunction with the Ohio State Bar Association, set the effort in motion. She asked that the task force steer clear of whether or not the state should have a death penalty. She wanted the panel to focus on ways to improve its administration and better serve the concept of justice. That objective flowed from concerns raised the past decade by the American Bar Association, the reporting of the Associated Press and other voices and analyses.
To its credit, the task force remained true to its purpose. Critics, including members of the panel, argue that the final recommendations reflect an “anti-death penalty bias,” and that capital punishment would become “virtually impossible.” They exaggerate. Capital punishment would remain available to county prosecutors.
What the task force recommendations would bring to the state is more balance and care to the conduct of the death penalty. The state would be better protected against the colossal error of executing an innocent person and better placed to reserve death sentences for the “worst of the worst.”
In short, the task force performed its job.
How would the death penalty be improved? Higher thresholds would be set across a range of areas. For instance, consideration of capital punishment would be barred unless DNA evidence linked the defendant to the murder, or the link came through a videotaped, voluntary confession or a conclusive video.
A confession or statement that was not recorded would be presumed “involuntary.” The death penalty would be prohibited when the state relies on testimony from a jailhouse informant that is not independently verified.
All crime labs would have to be certified by a recognized agency. A litigation fund would be established to support the prosecution and defense in capital murder cases. Data would be collected statewide to track trends. The death penalty would be prohibited for those suffering from a severe mental illness at the time of the execution. Defendants would be permitted to file racial disparity claims in court, driven by the greater likelihood of black defendants facing death sentences.
Much understandably has been made about the failings in the process for lethal injection, Ohio, along with Oklahoma, Missouri, South Dakota and Texas, making much news. Yet capital punishment has been faltering on two fronts. The other is its administration. So state lawmakers should give the work of the task force a close read, many of its recommendations requiring legislative action. This editorial page long has opposed capital punishment. That isn’t on the table now. Rather, the focus is on making improvements, the panel providing a road map for repairing flaws yet preserving the place of the death penalty.