Death penalty changes debated in Springfield

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Death penalty changes debated in Springfield

State death penalty reform recommendations were discussed during a forum Thursday in Springfield.

The event, held at St. Teresa Catholic Church and sponsored by Ohioans to Stop Executions, focused on a series of 56 recommendations issued in May by the Ohio Supreme Court’s Joint Task Force to Review the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty.

While the recommendations wouldn’t eliminate the death penalty in Ohio, the panelists talked about ways the reforms could keep innocent people off death row. Springfield was one of several Ohio stops on the forum tour.

“It’s a conversation that needs to happen about what’s happening and what’s not happening,” said Abraham Bonowitz, campaign consultant for Ohioans to Stop Executions.

While no pro-death penalty advocates served on the panel, John Murphy, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said his organization supports the way the system is and the recommendations could damage it.

“Many are questionable and if passed would make the death penalty virtually indefensible,” he said.

Murphy pointed to the recommendation that “Any in-custody interrogation shall be electronically recorded, or if not, statements are presumed voluntary” as an example of putting prosecutors in an unworkable position.

Discussion is underway to package the recommendations into bills to be considered by the state in 2015, Bonowitz said.

As of last month, 138 people were on death row in Ohio.

Bonowitz said four of the five speakers on the panel previously supported the death penalty. Each had experiences that changed their views.

Judge James Brogan, chairman of the Ohio Supreme Court Joint Task Force to review the Administration of the Death Penalty, was the only panelist not officially advocating abolition of the death penalty. As a prosecutor, he sent seven people to death row and often wondered if it was the right decision.

“My belief is in these recommendations. We cannot risk execution of the wrong person,” he said.

Panelist Terry Collins was the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections for nearly 33 years and witnessed 33 state executions.

“If the death penalty deterred crime, we wouldn’t have anybody in prison,” he said. “We have the best country in the world, the best criminal defense system in the world, but we can make mistakes. We do have an option in this state.”

Collins said the reinstatement of life without parole in the mid 1990s instead of execution is a better alternative and saw a reduction of an average of 15 to 17 death row inmates a year down to between two and four.

Panelist Joe D’Ambrosio was sentenced to death, exonerated and released in 2012 after serving 22 years, coming within three days of being executed.

“Don’t think it can’t happen to you,” he said. “If these recommendations had been in place, I’d have never been on death row. If we’re going to have the death penalty, at least make it fair and accurate.”

Panelist Charles Keith has seen the death penalty issue from both sides. One of his brothers was murdered in a home invasion in 2007 and his family was in favor of it. Another brother spent 17 years on death row, and Keith fought to get his sentence commuted. His brother is now doing a life sentence.

“We’ve got to come together and make it accountable,” said Keith.

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