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June 4, 2012

"Death of death penalty? Not in Hamilton County"

DeathPenaltyMapThe title of this post is the headline of this effective Cincinnati Enquirer article reporting lots of interesting data about the administration of the death penalty in various counties in Ohio.  Here are excerpts:

As capital murder convictions and death sentences have been falling across Ohio and the country, an Enquirer analysis shows Prosecutor Joe Deters continues to unapologetically pursue the death penalty.

Deters is a major reason Ohio’s death row is disproportionately populated by Hamilton County murderers. Hamilton County has had 10 inmates executed and leads Ohio with 27 of its 147 death row inmates. Under Deters’ two separate terms as prosecutor -- he was Ohio Treasurer in between -- his office has sent about two dozen to death row.

But it’s not that Deters seeks the death penalty more than other big-city prosecutors.  The Enquirer analysis found the opposite: Since Ohio adopted the death penalty in 1981, Hamilton County has sought the death penalty far less than Cuyahoga and Franklin counties but won death sentences one-third of the time, more than seven times higher than Ohio’s two other large counties.

Deters seeks the ultimate punishment only when he believes proof of guilt is certain, he said. The differing ways local prosecutors handle capital cases leads to what one prominent critic has labeled a “death lottery.”  But even as Deters continues to press capital murder cases, the attack on the death penalty again is percolating....

Deters, though, notes Ohio law includes the death penalty, he swore an oath to uphold that law and he will do so even if others disagree with him for doing so.   “There are some crimes so bad you need to die for what you’ve done,” Deters said. “The evil and acts we are dealing with are so extreme.”...

Since Ohio reinstated the death penalty in 1981, Hamilton County grand juries have handed up 172 capital murder indictments through 2011.  Of those, prosecutors won death sentences in 61, or 35.5 percent, records from the Ohio Supreme Court and Ohio Attorney General show.

Despite Hamilton County’s reputation for aggressively seeking the death penalty, its 172 capital murder indictments are one-third of Franklin County’s 496 and one-eighth of Cuyahoga County’s 1,231 in the same 30-year span. Cuyahoga has won a death sentence in 5.1 percent of its capital murder indictments through 2011; Franklin County in 3.8 percent.

Those numbers mean Deters seeks the death penalty far less than his Ohio big-county counterparts but succeeds far more often. Hamilton County’s 35.3 percent rate is almost seven eight times higher than Cuyahoga and more than nine times higher than Franklin. “We’re being criticized for doing our jobs very well,” said Deters, Hamilton County’s prosecutor from 1992-1998 and again since 2005.

Deters’ indictment numbers are so low compared to the other large counties, he believes, because of his personal stance. “If we indict a death penalty, we don’t plea bargain,” Deters said. “If there is a proof (of guilt) problem at all, I’m not doing it. I’m not seeking the death penalty.”

That means the odds of a Hamilton County inmate indicted for capital murder being sent to death row are higher.  That’s a major reason why death penalty opponents believe the punishment is unfair -- and should be eliminated....

[Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul] Pfeifer chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee that pushed to reinstate Ohio’s death penalty in 1981. But as he has presided over appeals cases involving the ultimate punishment since he was elected to the high court in 1992, he’s been so troubled by capital punishment that he now opposes it. “I think it just doesn’t work,” Pfeifer said.

Pfeifer’s biggest concern is the way he believes it’s indiscriminately applied. “I call it the death lottery,” he said, pointing squarely at Deters and Hamilton County. Because each county varies on when, why or if it seeks the death penalty, Pfeifer believes it’s not uniformly applied across the state but should be.

Deters agrees there are larger political issues revolving around capital punishment, especially for prosecutors who refuse to seek death penalties even though Ohio law allows capital punishment. “There’s no joy in this process,” Deters said. “You’re dealing with victims’ families who are just destroyed. You’re asking jurors to make what is probably the most important decision of their life. It’s a tough, tough law and I swore to uphold it.”

Death-penalty opponents can argue all they want, Deters said, but until the law changes, he will seek the death penalty when he thinks it appropriate. “If the politics were there to get rid of the death penalty, they’d get rid of it. It’s just not there,” Deters said.

June 4, 2012 at 12:06 PM | Permalink


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Geographic and jurisdictional disparity was, of course, at the heart of the Framers' concept of federalism.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 4, 2012 3:04:26 PM

"Pfeifer believes it’s not uniformly applied across the state but should be."
"one prominent critic has labeled a “death lottery.”"

“We’re being criticized for doing our jobs very well,” said Deters, Hamilton County’s prosecutor

"the attack on the death penalty again is percolating"
[So is "stinking, boiling tar", hotting-up in the sun.]

Deters deters!

Posted by: Adamakis | Jun 4, 2012 3:04:29 PM

The Fallacy of the Irrelevant Denominator strikes yet again.

Why is the third column of the chart the population of the county and not the number of murders?

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jun 4, 2012 3:35:21 PM

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