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June 16, 2013

Notable comments and recommendations emerging from Ohio Death Penalty Task Force

OhioAs I have mentioned before, I have generally been disinclined to blog about my on-going work as a member of the Joint Task Force to Review the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty (background here).  But there was some notable developments at this past week's public meeting of the Task Force which I thought would be of broad interest to readers of this blog.  This report from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, headlined "Task force urges state panel be created to evaluate death penalty prosecutions," provides the highlights:

A state task force is recommending that Ohio create a panel under the state attorney general that would review potential death penalty cases before prosecutors could take them to trial.

Under current Ohio law, the power to decide when to pursue the death penalty rests in the hands of individual county prosecutors.  But the recommendation by the Joint Task Force to Review the Administration of Ohio's Death Penalty would give the new panel authority to disapprove death penalty charges.

The recommendation is an attempt to address disparities in death penalty prosecutions in Ohio, said Ohio Public Defender Timothy Young, who chaired a subcommittee that drafted the recommendation.  “The two biggest disparities my group has dealt with are race issues and geographic issues,” Young said.  In the case of race issues, they revolve around the race of the victim.  “I think it’s vitally important that we do something about disparity and the death penalty,” Young said. “The numbers are overwhelming.”

Once a prosecutor made a decision, the panel -- made up of staff from the attorney general’s office and former county prosecutors appointed by the governor -- would review that decision.  It would look at the circumstances of the case, giving particular consideration to the races of those charged and the victims, said Jo Ellen Cline, government relations counsel to the Ohio Supreme Court and the court’s liaison to the joint task force.  “It would be a significant change in how things operate now,” Cline said.

The task force’s recommendation has a long way to go before it could become reality. It likely will be late in the year before the task force finishes its work, and some recommendations, including this one, would require legislative action to change state law. Given that, not all of the details on how the panel would work, or if a prosecutor would have some recourse if opposed to the panel’s decision, are not nailed down. That specificity would likely come from the General Assembly, Cline said.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, with the Ohio State Bar Association, established the joint task force in 2011. It is charged with determining if capital punishment in Ohio is administered fairly and judiciously and to examine if adjustments are needed....

Far and away the majority of Ohio’s capital cases come from urban areas, Young said. And while they should naturally see more, simply because of population, their numbers are also greater per capita. “We have more than 40 counties that have never brought a death penalty case,” Young said.

There are a myriad of possibilities for why that is the case. The goal of the recommendation is to find more of a common standard, Young said. “Right now you have 88 prosecutors, all well intentioned,” Young said. “Our thought process was that if it went through a central committee that would even out those 88 applications.” Young said there was was significant debate on the recommendation, which was approved by a vote of 8 to 6.

Much of the debate dealt with the impact it would have on what now is a matter of prosecutorial discretion. And Young said he would not be surprised if those opposed to the recommendation write a dissenting opinion for the final report. Cline agreed. “They’re concerned that the prosecutors were elected by the folks in their jurisdictions to make these decisions,” she said.

Other developments in this week's meeting also made news as revealed by this Columbus Dispatch article headlined "Former Justice Stratton says she’s now opposed to death penalty." It starts this way:

In nearly three terms on the Ohio Supreme Court, former Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton sided with the majority most of the time when convicted murderers were put to death. From 1996 through the end of last year, spanning the time Stratton was a justice on the court, Ohio executed 49 men by lethal injection.

But nearly six months after leaving the court, the Republican, now an attorney in private practice in Columbus, has changed her views. Stratton yesterday told members of an Ohio Supreme Court task force reviewing administration of the death penalty that she didn’t have a strong feeling about capital punishment while serving on the court.

“I have evolved to where I don’t think the death penalty is effective,” she said in an interview. “I don’t have a moral inhibition ... Overall, it’s just not the best way to deal with it on a number of different levels.”

Stratton said she has long opposed executions involving mentally ill defendants, but she now opposes capital punishment in general because she doesn’t see it as a deterrent and victims’ families don’t gain the finality they seek when the murderer is put to death.

June 16, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack