Guest view: For justice, safety and the public good, end Ohio's death penalty
As we reach the end of a year so darkened by death and discord, it is remarkable that 2020 could become the one in which Ohio ends its role as an official agent of death.
More indications are surfacing that the death penalty has reached its end in Ohio.
While 138 convicted felons await on Death Row, the last execution was in 2018. A tacit moratorium has been in effect since then, largely because drugmakers no longer are willing to sell the drugs required by Ohio to carry out lethal injection, the only execution method legal in this state.
Gov. Mike DeWine was more explicit about the reality in a recent interview, saying it’s “pretty clear” that Ohio won’t be carrying out any more lethal injections.
Although many Ohioans, including many General Assembly members, approve of capital punishment in principle, momentum toward abolishing it has begun to build since the problems with lethal injection became more apparent during the past two decades.
There have been botched attempts, when no usable vein could be found. And there was the grisly death in 2014 of Dennis McGuire, who gasped and writhed for 25 minutes before dying.
DeWine has canceled and rescheduled every execution on the calendar since he took office in January 2019. Some have speculated that the governor, who describes himself as firmly pro-life regarding abortion, is coming to extend that philosophy to opposing the death penalty.
State Sen. Kristina Roegner, R-Hudson, an anti-abortion conservative, put herself in that camp in March, when she joined with Democrat Nickie Antonio of Lakewood in announcing a bill to ban the death penalty: “I don’t think it would be intellectually honest of me” not to oppose capital punishment, she said.
But the strongest drivers to end the death penalty likely will be practical. It is expensive because of the long and costly appeals process, difficult to carry out and hasn’t proven to be effective at deterring crime. In fact, DeWine told The Dispatch on Tuesday that it is no longer a deterrent because of the many years that go by during appeals.
Prosecuting a death-penalty case — with more investigation, more attorneys and multiple levels of appeal — typically carries a price tag several times the cost of keeping someone in a maximum-security prison for 40 years.
Former House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, raised eyebrows in February when he intimated that capital punishment might no longer be worth the cost and the trouble, and that life in prison with no chance of parole is itself a hellish punishment.
The Statehouse chaos of 2020 — coping with the coronavirus pandemic and its attendant budget crisis, as well as the nasty election — probably prevented further reconsideration. Two late-year developments — DeWine's comment about lethal injection and passage of a bill to ban the penalty for people diagnosed with serious mental illness — have brought the issue to light again.
And DeWine pointed out last week that it is the law of the land. Until the legislature acts to remove the death penalty, it will remain an option for prosecutors, a moral question, and a burden for taxpayers.
While the expense and the futility of the death penalty should be enough to convince any student of public policy that it belongs to the past, the moral concerns are significant.
We don’t refer strictly to the question of whether the state ever can be justified in deliberately ending the life of someone in its control; that is an ethical question, the answer to which is purely personal.
The public ethical challenge to the death penalty is that no justice system is flawless enough to mete out a penalty so irrevocable.
Every year, scholarly research and journalistic investigations reveal more ways that racial bias and unethical law enforcement and prosecution can stack the deck against defendants. Sometimes, it's mistakes rather than misconduct that lead to a wrong outcome. Former state Attorney General Jim Petro, a Republican and a convert to the movement to end the death penalty, wrote a book with his wife in 2011 about all the ways wrongful convictions happen.
“False Justice” detailed the unreliability of eyewitness identification, even though juries believe it above most other kinds of evidence, as well as a number of reasons why a defendant might confess to a crime he didn’t commit.
A 2008 Dispatch series, “Test of Convictions,” examined 30 death-penalty cases with flawed prosecutions, including mishandling of DNA evidence. As a result of the series, six men to date have been exonerated or released from prison and the General Assembly enacted several reforms aimed at making the system more fair.
Mistakes and misconduct clearly happen; it is extremely likely that Ohio has executed inmates who were innocent of their death-penalty charges.
Given that, plus the high cost of maintaining Death Row, it simply is not in Ohio’s best interest to go looking for a new way to execute people.
Justice, public safety and the general welfare all would be served far better by diverting the money spent on capital punishment and spending it instead to prevent crime, by improving education, family services and drug and mental-health treatment.
Ohio’s prisons are filled beyond capacity with inmates who, with the right interventions, could become productive members of society. For those who can’t — the “worst of the worst” — there is room enough to lock them away forever.
— The Columbus Dispatch