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May 21, 2012

Detailing declines in capital indictments and sentences in Ohio

This new article from my own Columbus Dispatch, which is headlined "Death-penalty cases drop: New sentencing options and changes in attitudes mean fewer are being sent to Death Row," provides an accounting of changes in the administration of the death penalty in Ohio in recent years.   Here are excerpts:

Franklin County sent 17 people to Death Row from 1985 to 2003, an average of nearly one a year.  Then things changed.  The death sentence imposed last week on Caron E. Montgomery was the county’s first in nearly nine years.

The numbers have declined statewide, as well.  Since the state’s current death-penalty statute was enacted in 1981, the number of Ohioans sentenced to death fell from a record 24 in 1985 to one in 2009.  Last year, three people were sent to Ohio’s Death Row. 

“I don’t think there’s any one reason for it,” said Ohio Public Defender Timothy Young. “I think it’s a combination of reasons.”   The reasons include a change in cultural attitudes about the death penalty, the financial burden associated with trying and appealing such cases and the availability of life without parole as an alternative, he said.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien said his office began reassessing how it handles potential death-penalty cases in 2005.  “We’re looking at mitigating factors now, just as a judge or jury would, and not just at the crime,” he said. “We’re asking, ‘What is the realistic possibility of obtaining the death penalty in this case?’  ”

Death-penalty indictments in Franklin County dropped dramatically as a result, from 34 in 2004 to five in 2005. Last year, three death-penalty indictments were filed in the county. O’Brien said he changed his approach to the cases after working with the U.S. attorney’s office in early 2005 on the federal death-penalty case against Daryl Lawrence, who was convicted of murdering Columbus police Officer Bryan Hurst and sentenced to death by a federal jury....

The Lawrence case also coincided with a 2005 change in state law that allowed a life sentence without parole to be imposed for aggravated-murder cases that didn’t qualify for the death penalty.  Previously, life without parole was only possible in death-penalty cases. “Suddenly, prosecutors didn’t have to file a death-penalty indictment to get to life without parole,” Young said.

He thinks that’s among the reasons for a statewide decline in death-penalty indictments, from 98 in 2004 to 56 in 2011.  Only Cuyahoga County continues to indict a significant number of death-penalty cases.  In the past three years, 115 were indicted there, accounting for 53 percent of all death-penalty cases in the state.... But for all those indictments, Cuyahoga County sent only three defendants to Death Row in the past three years.

All 33 states with the death penalty on the books now allow judges and juries to consider life without parole as an alternative, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C....  “Juries are hesitant about the death penalty because of all the revelations about wrongful convictions,” Dieter said. “Life without parole is seen as an acceptable alternative.”

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