America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

New OTSE Report Details Dwindling Death Penalty: Execution Method Debate Is A Distraction

Columbus - Ohioans to Stop Executions releases its new report on the status of Ohio’s death penalty this week. 

The report, A Relic of the Past: Ohio’s Dwindling Death Penalty, details a continuing decline in executions and new death sentences in Ohio while highlighting the disparities between counties which prosecute death cases. 

The report also catalogs the reluctance of Ohio legislators to consider recommendations made by a Supreme Court Task Force to make Ohio’s death penalty more fair and accurate.

“The suggestion by Ohio prosecutors to use the gas chamber to carry out executions is an attempt to distract Ohioans from the real issues,” said Kevin Werner, executive director of the statewide anti-death penalty group. “They want to resume executions without taking steps to reform the system in order to make it as fair and accurate as it can be. They don’t want Ohioans to take a close look at the issue, because anyone who does look will see that the death penalty fails us as a public policy for our state.”

The report is available for free download at www.OTSE.org or http://bit.ly/OTSE2015Report.

County Prosecutors: “Justice in Ohio should not hinge on the whims of a single elected official.”

New death sentences were down yet again, with only one new death sentence in Ohio in 2015. This compares to three new death sentences in 2014, four in 2013, and five in 2012.

There was a slight rise in capital indictments in Ohio in 2015, but in some surprising places. OTSE wonders if some of that is push back from prosecutors in response to glaring geographic disparities in the use of the death penalty, or the threat thereof. Now smaller counties are seeking the death penalty more, while bigger counties are seeking it less.

Forty years after the Furman decision, the same problems of arbitrariness continue. What matters more than anything else in deciding when Ohio is going to execute a convicted killer is the personal predilections of a county prosecutor. Justice in Ohio should not hinge on the whims of a single elected official.

Just look at Cuyahoga County. Capital indictments now rarely happen, but they have no problem securing convictions. Did the murder rate plunge? No. The prosecutor changed.

On the other hand, look at Tremble County, which has one of the lowest homicide rates of Ohio counties which sentence people to death. Under Prosecutor Dennis Watkins, Trumble county leads the state with the highest death sentence to homicide rate. Why? The whims of the prosecutor, who makes it a point to highlight his death penalty track record in his professional bio.

Task Force Recommendations: “They don’t want to fix it, so it’s time to end it.”

With only one new death sentence and no executions in 2015, the downward trend continues. Ohio is hardly using its expensive and antiquated system of capital punishment. There has been no significant movement to adopt Supreme Court Death Penalty Task Force recommendations to make Ohio’s death penalty more fair and accurate. They don’t even want to talk about what is clearly a relic of the past. We have 36 years of data. The reasonable conclusion is to stop trying to fix an unfixable system. It is time to end the death penalty in Ohio.

Exonerations: “It’s worse than we thought”

We’ve been looking at an incomplete picture of the problem with wrongful convictions. When we look at every case where they tried to get a death sentence, we see more and more exonerations. At least 13 totally innocent Ohioans have been prosecuted under the death penalty law. Thankfully they were not wrongfully executed, just wrongfully convicted.

Two things are certain: When the wrong person is sent to prison, the real killer is left free to kill again. Ohio taxpayers are paying millions of dollars in compensation for the mistakes of police and prosecutors. We are seeing this with the 2014 exonerations of Wiley Bridgeman, Kwame Ajamu and Ricky Jackson.

Source: OTSE, September 7, 2016

Ohio looks at nitrogen as a new execution method

Ohio might consider adding nitrogen gas as a new execution method because of problems securing lethal injection drugs.

There have been no executions in the state for 2 1/2 years, largely because of lawsuits and difficulty obtaining drugs for lethal injection. Beginning in January, there are 28 convicted killers with execution dates scheduled over four years.

John Murphy, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said today lethal injection is "stalled" and it's time for a change. Prosecutors have long been strong supporters of Ohio's death penalty law.

"I think the legislature ought to recommend another method of execution," Murphy said in an interview. He recommends switching to nitrogen gas, a method he called "humane and reasonably inexpensive."

Nitrogen gas, pumped into an air-tight chamber, produces asphyxiation by a lack of oxygen in the blood. It has not been used for executions, although Oklahoma adopted it as a backup method. The sponsor of the Oklahoma law called it "foolproof."

People occasionally die accidentally from nitrogen asphyxiation. Deep-sea divers sometimes suffer from a form of it, producing an effect often described as euphoric. The gas is widely available and inexpensive.

JoEllen Smith, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said the agency "continues to seek all legal means to obtain the drugs necessary to carry out court-ordered executions."

State Rep. Jim Butler, R-Oakwood, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said, "It's good to look at alternative methods that are humane. That's something we should definitely do."

But Butler added, "One problem is if it's something that's not been tried before, you need to vet it to make sure it's appropriate. It's certainly going to be tested in the court system."

Other states have moved ahead with alternatives. Tennessee permits use of the electric chair, Utah allows the firing squad, and Oklahoma allows nitrogen gas.

Dr. Jonathan Groner, a professor of clinical surgery at Ohio State University College of Medicine, said using nitrogen gas could be "dangerous and impractical."

"You and I are breathing 78 % nitrogen right now," he said. "It's not a poison. It's an inert gas."

When nitrogen is introduced, oxygen is pushed out of the bloodstream, causing potentially painful suffocation, Groner said.

"I would challenge that it's foolproof. We've heard that before," he said.

Death penalty opponents say it's not time to add a new execution method but to abandon capital punishment entirely. The current process is unfair, arbitrary and prone to mistakes, concludes a new report by Ohioans to Stop Executions, "A Relic of the Past, Ohio's Dwindling Death Penalty."

The report, released today, details the history of the state's death penalty law which was reinstated in 1981 after being overturned as unconstitutional by a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision that put capital punishment on hold nationally. The state resumed executions in 1999 and has put 53 men to death over 17 years. The last execution was in Jan. 2014.

The report argues that the Ohio's death penalty law "remains plagued by the very same flaws" that caused it to be overturned 40 years ago. There are significant disparities in death sentences based on race and geography, the report states.

But Murphy said the method aside, the death penalty is "not a broken system" in Ohio.

He disputed the report's assertion about geographic disparities. He said Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, known as a hardliner on capital punishment, "keeps getting elected. This is democracy in action. People elect prosecutors who reflect the attitude of the community."

Source: The Columbus Dispatch, September 7, 2016

Death Penalty Opponents Want More Task Force Recommendations Implemented

A group that fights for an end to the death penalty in Ohio has issued a new report showing a task force's recent recommendations are not being implemented.

In 2014, an Ohio Supreme Court task force of judges, prosecutors, lawmakers and other members issued 56 proposals to change the state's capital punishment trial and execution process. But Kevin Werner with Ohioans to Stop Executions says only 4 have been adopted. He asking Ohio's lawmakers to approve the rest.

"We want those recommendations to be fully adopted so that at least we know the system is a little bit more fair and a little bit more accurate."

And Werner says there were 5 more death penalty cases last year than the year before. Ohio hasn't put any inmates to death in almost 3 years since there has been a shortage of lethal injection drugs.

Source: WOSU news, September 7, 2016

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