Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

In our Explainer series, Fair Punishment Project lawyers help unpackage some of the most complicated issues in the criminal justice system. We break down the problems behind the headlines - like bail, civil asset forfeiture, or the Brady doctrine - so that everyone can understand them. Wherever possible, we try to utilize the stories of those affected by the criminal justice system to show how these laws and principles should work, and how they often fail. We will update our Explainers monthly to keep them current. Read our updated explainer here.
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Ohio: Judge's rejection of jury's execution recommendation is rare

A recent decision by a Cleveland judge to overrule a jury's death sentence recommendation for a triple killer highlights how rare such judicial decisions are.

Research by The Associated Press found just eight additional examples of judicial overrides since Ohio's current death penalty law took effect in 1981. That's compared with more than 320 death sentences handed down during the same time period.

Overriding death sentences can be politically risky for judges, who are elected in Ohio and many other states, said Doug Berman, an Ohio State University law professor and sentencing expert.

Many cases with strong evidence against capital punishment for a defendant are resolved with plea bargains before ever reaching a jury, he added. Those cases typically involve pretrial research turning up strong mitigating evidence - a horrific childhood or mental disabilities, for example - that outweigh what are called aggravating circumstances, such as the brutality of the crime.

"It's relatively rare a case will get to a jury verdict if it looks like there's a pretty significant possibility that the mitigators will outweigh the aggravators," Berman said.

Cuyahoga County Judge Joan Synenberg cited defendant Douglas Shine Jr.'s prolonged physical and psychological abuse as a child, mental health problems and years of incarceration in sentencing him to life in prison with no chance for parole on Dec. 19 instead of accepting a jury's recommendation for the death penalty.

Testimony during the trial's death penalty phase showed that Shine's early childhood was chaotic and "characterized by persistent neglect and physical and psychological abuse," Synenberg said. She noted that Shine lived in youth detention facilities from age 10 to 16 followed by two years in an adult prison.

Prosecutors said Shine walked into a Warrensville Heights barber shop in February 2015, pulled two guns from beneath his coat and opened fire, killing 3 people and wounding 2 men and a woman.

"Unfortunately, the court gave more weight to the self-serving, unsubstantiated statements of an unrepentant, malingering mass murderer than to the overwhelming evidence that he was fully capable of planning and carrying out this diabolical attack on a crowded barbershop filled with men, women and children," Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty said following Synenberg's ruling.

Highlights of the 8 other cases in Ohio in which judges have thrown out a jury's death sentence since the state enacted a new capital punishment law in 1981:

1983 -- A jury's death sentence for Drewey Kiser, of Williamsport, convicted of fatally shooting Don Writsel during a robbery, was overridden by Judge Nicholas Holmes Jr. of Ross County Common Pleas Court. Holmes cited Kiser's age, 23; the defendant's lack of a significant criminal history; mental illness; and alcoholism. Holmes also pointed out that a death sentence would not have been proportional to the 3 other death sentences in Ohio at the time.

1987 -- A jury's death sentence for Alonzo Wright, of Cleveland, convicted of fatally shooting Grover Lang during a robbery, was overridden by Judge Frank J. Gorman of Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court. Gorman cited the victim's decision to rush Wright, which apparently led to the shooting, instead of obeying Wright's request for money.

1988 -- A jury's death sentence for John Parsons, of Worthington, convicted of shooting a man as he fled from his burning home, was overridden by Judge Dale Crawford of Franklin County Common Pleas Court. Crawford cited Parsons' background and lack of a prior criminal record and said a death sentence would not be equivalent to 5 other death sentences imposed in Franklin County up to that time.

1989 -- A jury's death sentence for Eddie Robertson, of Dayton, convicted of fatally shooting Stephanie Hiatt in a 1988 robbery, was overridden by Judge William MacMillan Jr. of Montgomery County Common Pleas Court. MacMillan cited Robertson's lack of a significant criminal history, his relative youth (30), his pursuit of education beyond high school and the lack of an advance plan to kill anyone. MacMillan said it appeared Robertson shot Hiatt on the spur of the moment, fearing she recognized him.

1999 -- A jury's death sentence for Gregory Crawford, of Valley City, convicted of beating Gene Palmer to death during a robbery, was overridden by Judge Mark Wiest of Wayne County Common Pleas Court. Wiest cited Palmer's age (37), his good behavior in jail, Crawford's strong relationship with his family, his work completing his high school degree and his religious conversion.

2000 -- A jury's death sentence for Christopher Fuller, of Hamilton, convicted of killing his 2-year-old daughter after trying to rape her, was overridden by Judge Matthew Crehan of Butler County Common Pleas Court. Crehan cited Fuller's job supporting his family, his military service, his lack of a prior criminal record and the remorse he showed over the girl's death.

2002 -- A jury's death sentence for Brian Siler of Nankin in Ashland County, convicted of shooting his estranged wife, Barbara Siler, was overridden by Judge Jeffrey Runyan of Ashland County Common Pleas Court. Runyan cited a number of factors in Siler's defense, including the absence of a criminal background and active participation in church and the community. Runyan also questioned the burglary charge against Brian Siler - an added count that made the crime a capital case - pointing out that he'd broken into his own home. Runyan then questioned whether the death sentence was an attempt by the community to avoid responsibility for failing to do more to prevent Barbara Siler's death.

2010 - A jury's death sentence for Charles Cunningham in Clark County, convicted of aggravated murder in the fatal shooting of an ex-girlfriend, Jessica Serna (the mother of two of Cunningham's children), was overridden by Judge Richard O'Neill. Cunningham was also convicted of killing Serna's friend, Heidi Shook, but not sentenced to death for her slaying. O'Neill said there was "a fine line" between the evidence that Cunningham killed Serna "with prior calculation and design," an element necessary for a death sentence, and whether he shot her "on the spur of the moment" out of frustration with his unsuccessful attempts to re-establish a relationship.

Source: Associated Press, January 2, 2017

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