The Bucyrus Telegraph-Forum recently carried an interview with Paul Pfeifer. The subject was capital punishment, the Ohio Supreme Court justice having pledged a year ago to bring more sustained attention to whether the state should keep the death penalty. Since the 1980s, he has traveled the path from support, as a state senator, to opposition, arguing today that it is “exceedingly difficult” to administer “in a fair and just way.”
Pfeifer has had success. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor has set in motion a task force to examine the conduct of the death penalty. A federal judge has been pressing the state to improve and hold true to its procedures for applying the lethal injection.
The legislature held a hearing on a bill that would end the death penalty.
In the Telegraph-Forum, Pfeifer reiterated his argument that capital punishment has become a “death lottery,” its use driven too often by the location of the crime, one county more likely to seek a death sentence than another. Add a racial component, tilting against blacks, plus other flaws, and you have a deepening national unease.
Pfeifer specifically pointed to the lottery effect in the case of Kevin Keith. He argued that Keith, sent to death row after his 1994 conviction in the shooting deaths of three people in a Bucyrus apartment, benefited from the aggressive campaign of his family, the state public defender’s office and others, including the Innocence Project, all seeking a new trial at the least.
Eventually, in September 2010, Ted Strickland, then governor, commuted Keith’s sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Pfeifer saw arbitrariness in play, making plain in the Telegraph-Forum that he still viewed Keith as guilty of the murders.
“The Akron Beacon Journal said it would be a gross miscarriage of justice if he were put to death,” Pfeifer reasoned, “but I thought the Bucyrus Police Department did a good job. A lot of what never makes those opinion pieces is the fact that the imprint of Keith’s license print was left in the snow in front of his girlfriend’s apartment.”
Actually, this editorial page made a fleeting reference to the issue of the license plate. In the main, we focused in editorials and columns on other compelling information reflecting the eroding case against Keith. It now seems worth a moment to examine the current state of the license plate evidence.
What once appeared strong has weakened substantially, even been disproved. Prosecutors argued that the alleged Keith getaway car left an impression in a snow bank and a partial license plate number, “043.” The Keith car (owned by his girlfriend) did have that sequence of numbers.
In July 2010, at the request of the state public defender’s office, one of the country’s leading experts in forensic impressions evaluated this evidence. He found that the snow imprint did not match the bumper of the Keith car. More, he concluded there wasn’t sufficient detail about the numbers, especially whether they came first or second on the plate.
The point isn’t to jab: Gotcha. Rather, it is to weigh the impact of the additional evidence mined the past five years by Rachel Troutman and her colleagues at the state public defender’s office. What would a jury conclude if presented with the full portrait?
Consider that another car — linked to an alternate suspect — had “043” on the license plate. The theory of the case has been that Keith struck in retaliation against a drug informant. Keith’s attorneys learned via another investigation that this alternate suspect claimed that he had been paid $15,000 to “cripple” the informant and that he would kill anyone who snitched on him.
Witnesses told police officers the killer wore a mask. Evidence from other cases indicates that this alternate suspect had used a mask.
The prosecution relied heavily on eyewitness testimony (the leading cause of wrongful convictions). Keith’s attorneys have exposed flaws in the decisive testimony of one of the survivors of the shooting. He initially said he didn’t know who shot him. Then the name “Kevin” surfaced, police pointing to a call from the hospital, a nurse reporting that the witness had shared the name. Keith’s attorneys since have unearthed police radio dispatch logs showing no such call.
In addition, the logs reveal that a bullet casing wasn’t found near the home of Keith’s girlfriend — but more than one mile away.
As things stand, the public defender has a matter pending before the Ohio Supreme Court involving police misconduct in the Keith case. That makes all the more surprising the comment from Justice Pfeifer about the Bucyrus department doing “a good job.”
Was it the old pol? Pfeifer is a Bucyrus native, the city part of the district he represented in the legislature. On Thursday, he recused himself.
As discussed on this page, the ideal step would have been a new trial, a jury weighing the complete package of evidence. That did not happen as Keith’s execution date approached, a regrettable triumph of form over substance
Ted Strickland became the one person of authority to examine the record in whole. He concluded that amid the new doubts and evidence, the “real and unanswered questions,” the state must not execute Kevin Keith. He wasn’t eyeing the arbitrariness. He delivered a necessary measure of justice.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at email@example.com.