On Thursday, the Washington Supreme Court struck down that state’s death penalty due to racial bias and arbitrary application. Washington became the 20th state to abandon the death penalty. Ohio lawmakers would be wise to follow suit.
In 1981, three short years after Ohio’s death penalty was ruled unconstitutional in the case of Lockett v. Ohio, lawmakers resurrected the death penalty. Since then major problems with the state's death penalty have become clear.
The death penalty routinely sends innocent people to death row. Nationally, 163 innocent people have been freed from death row. For every 10 executions conducted in the U.S., one innocent person has been released from death row.
Here in Ohio, the data are even more chilling. For every six executions Ohio has conducted, one person has been freed from death row. Ricky Jackson, Wiley Bridgeman, Kwame Ajamu, Gary Beeman, Dale Johnston, Gary James, Timothy Howard, Derrick Jamison and Joe D’Ambrosio are the nine men wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in Ohio. It is unlikely they are the only innocent people ever sentenced to death. Ohio’s next governor already has 24 scheduled executions to deal with. How many of those condemned prisoners are innocent?
The death penalty is enormously expensive. The Beacon Journal examined the initial trial costs of two aggravated murder cases in 2017, one with death specification and one without. Both defendants were tried around the same time. The result was Summit County spent 10 times more on the death penalty case than the non-death case. Legislators have never examined what Ohio spends on death cases, but if they did they would find that the roughly 330 death sentences since 1981 have likely cost Ohio taxpayers over $1 billion.
Why don’t we taxpayers notice what is being spent on capital cases? Good question, and one that deserves attention.
Just like in Washington state, Ohio’s death penalty is biased and arbitrary with respect to race and geography. Given the costs, one would think every Ohio county was regularly seeking death sentences. To the contrary, Ohio’s death cases (and the costs, errors and troubling inefficiency) come from just a handful of counties. More than 56 percent of all death cases in the modern era come from two counties — Cuyahoga and Franklin.
When we look at which counties execute the most, data show that four counties — Lucas, Summit, Cuyahoga and Hamilton — are responsible for more than half of all executions.
Equal justice is the foundation of our laws and society, but our justice system is administered by flawed individuals with implicit bias. Researcher Frank Baumgartner found that Ohio’s death penalty is plagued by racial bias. Sixty-five percent of all executions in the modern era were for crimes involving white victims despite the fact that 43 percent of homicide victims were white.
Baumgartner also found that homicides involving white female victims were six times more likely to result in an execution compared to homicides involving black male victims. Equal justice under law has a different meaning for white and black homicide victims in Ohio.
Death penalty case outcomes are inefficient and unreliable. Under the current law, prosecutors have initiated over 3,200 death penalty cases according to the Ohio Supreme Court capital indictment records. Already deemed worthy of the death penalty, these thousands of cases resulted in 330 actual death sentences. Put another way, prosecutors fail to get the verdict they seek in almost 90 percent of expensive death penalty cases.
Even when they do secure that rare death conviction, nearly 40 percent of all death sentences are overturned by courts due to some error or somehow result in an execution never taking place. Most recently, a review of all the capital cases brought in Ohio between 2014 and 2017 reveals that nine of 10 cases end in something other than the death penalty. Taxpayers, however, are still on the hook for those exponentially more expensive death cases.
Forty years after the Lockett decision and after Ohio lawmakers tried to engineer a fair and accurate death penalty system, it is clear the most severe punishment we have is just not working. Reforms have been suggested by a task force of the Ohio Supreme Court, but those fixes have sat idle for years. As legislators fail to correct widely known deficiencies, they run the risk of an Ohio Supreme Court decision finding our death penalty unconstitutional just like what happened in Washington state.
Werner is executive director of Ohioans to Stop Executions and a panelist at the University of Akron law school symposium on the 40th anniversary of the Lockett v. Ohio ruling. The public is invited to attend or watch online, Monday, at 12:00 pm., at https://uakron.webex.com/uakron/onstage/g.php?MTID=e7e73056795277e38aa70048ad8d2436a.