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Task force studies fairness of Ohio death penalty

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After the American Bar Association scrutinized Ohio’s Death penalty, a special task force was commissioned to study its fairness and accuracy.

The task force, compiled of Ohio judges, sheriffs, prosecutors, law professors and senators, works at drafting proposals that will remedy flaws existing in Ohio’s death penalty.

The task force aims to mend the geographic disparity of death penalty cases in Ohio. Currently, the death penalty is applied in a patchwork fashion throughout Ohio’s 88 counties. Over the span of 25 years, only four counties have made up for over 50 percent of all death sentences.

“The death penalty is applied in a wide variation in Ohio because it’s up to the discretion of the individual county prosecutor,” said Sheriff Tim Rodenberg, a member of the task force. “Cuyahoga has historically had a higher amount of death penalty charges and indictments whereas down in other corners of the state they use it much more sparingly.”

So sparingly that since 1981, when the death penalty was reinstated in Ohio, 46 counties have yet to sentence someone to death.

“If you commit a crime in one county, you could be subjected to the death penalty, but if you commit the same crime in another county you may not. Your death penalty charge might depend on where you are, and not necessarily what you’ve done, and that’s not the way it should be,” Rodenberg said.

In Hamilton County, 43 percent of those charged with a capital crime received a death sentence, which stands in stark comparison to the 8 percent in Cuyahoga that were sentenced to death when charged with capital crime.

The chairman of the task force, Judge Jim Brogan, attributes much of the geographic disparity to economic differences across Ohio. Many of the smaller counties in Ohio simply cannot afford the expensive cost of death sentences.

The task force recommends a capital litigation fund to ensure that the death penalty occurs when necessary, and helps with the cost for rural counties. The fund flows through the Attorney General and a commission to determine if the death penalty should take place. The capital litigation funds moves the decision of the death penalty out of one of the 88 Ohio prosecutors into the hands of the Attorney General.

However, Ohio Prosecutors feel that a capital litigation fund intrudes upon their authority. They argue that citizens elect prosecutors to decide if the death penalty is brought in their county, not the Attorney General.

“Remember that these prosecutions are always brought in the name of the state of Ohio, it’s not the county vs. the defendant. The Attorney General could be the perfect individual to bring some neutrality to the decision making,” Brogan said.

Another death penalty disparity that the task force addresses is racial disparity. Over a 10 year period in Cuyahoga County, 390 death penalty cases were indicted. 70 percent of the defendants were African American, but only 20 percent of the total population in Cuyahoga is African American.

“White victims tend to bring on the death penalty more as opposed to African American victims. The African American’s life has not been valued as highly as the white victim’s life,” Brogan said. “It’s not so much disparity as who the perpetrator is, as who the victim is, of course everyone’s life should be valued the same regardless of their race. That’s the very disturbing aspect of it.”

Even though African Americans make up for 12 percent of Ohio’s total population, since 1981, 48 percent of the people receiving death sentences were African American. On death row in Ohio, 66 percent of the inmates are there for killing white victims, while only 31 percent are charged for murdering black victims.

In addition to discussing both racial and geographic disparity, the task force developed a recommendation assuring that death penalties are not sentenced to innocent defendants. Nationally, the courts ruled 142 cases as wrongful convictions, and 6 of them were from Ohio alone. A common theme found behind the wrongful convictions were false confessions, misidentification of the perpetrator, and snitch testimonies.

To combat future false confessions, the task force recommends that no death penalty cases should move forward with a confession that was not audio or video taped from beginning to end. Although prosecutors initially opposed the recommendation, the groups settled on a proposal that agreed confessions are presumed involuntary if no audio or video tape is present. Fifteen states now recommend in death penalty cases that no confession is admissible without audio or video tape.

“You can use your cell phone to video tape a confession, let’s bring this thing into the 21st century for God’s sake,” Brogan said. “What’s your excuse for not recording the alleged confession of the defendant?”

Brogan points out that when a jury hears a defendant saying he did not confess swearing against a police officer, the jury will side with the police officer.

“All we’re doing as a group is saying this is what we think is the best way to prevent an innocent person from being sentenced to death and these are our recommendations. “It’s kind of like a pilot that gets into a plane and before he gets on he does a check list just to make sure these things are all done so that the plan doesn’t crash,” Brogan said. “That’s what we’re trying to do, we’re making sure that before the jury signs a death verdict the evidence that they get is the best possible evidence they can receive.”

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