VOICES: Ohio’s death penalty disproportionately affects Black men

Over a hundred years ago, at a site a little under 50 miles from where I live, an angry mob of white people showed up, guns in hand, to the jail cell of Henry Corbin. Corbin had been accused of killing a white woman– an accusation he and his family flatly denied. Without any due process, this mob took it upon themselves to enact so-called justice, hanging Corbin from a tree and filling his body with over 400 bullets.

Sadly, the modern death penalty in Ohio is a direct descendant of this kind of racial terror. As anti-lynching laws were passed, the use of the death penalty increased. Lawmakers around the country justified their support of capital punishment by claiming that without it, white residents would continue to implement mob justice on their Black neighbors. Overall, as lynching went down, use of the death penalty escalated.

Let’s think about the numbers. If race didn’t play a role in how someone is sentenced to death, you would expect that the racial makeup of death row would roughly correlate to the state’s Black population. However, over half of Ohio’s death row is Black but Black people make up only 13% of the total population in Ohio. Why is there such a deep discrepancy, if not for racial bias present in our legal system?

In 2014, a joint task force appointed by the Ohio Supreme Court released a report acknowledging several ways race plays a factor in capital sentencing and included recommendations aimed at reducing this racial bias. Yet, none of those recommendations have been seriously examined or legislated. And as time stretches on, racial bias persists in capital cases. In fact, a study examining the way the death penalty is applied in Hamilton County released in 2020 showed that Black men are 3-5 times more likely to receive a death sentence if their victim was white.

The majority of the men exonerated from death row are Black. In fact, we have come perilously close to executing an innocent Black man. Derrick Jamison, who spent 20 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit, came within 90 minutes of an execution. He ordered his last meal and made arrangements for his body. It is worth noting that Jamison was convicted in Hamilton County. If not for strong outside advocacy for Jamison, he may well have been wrongfully executed– our system is not designed to examine innocence claims, but rather that procedure was followed.

So we must ask ourselves, is Ohio so far removed from the mindset of the people who lynched Henry Corbin all those years ago? Though our society thinks we have sanitized our execution process by way of lethal injection, the racial injustice present in Ohio’s death penalty is pervasive.

Last year, the Ohio legislature introduced two bills that would end Ohio’s death penalty. These bills were significant in that they had the most bipartisan support ever and the bills went farther in the legislative process than ever before. Now, at the start of this new session, the call is growing louder to make abolishing the death penalty the top of the agenda. Indeed, abolishing the death penalty is one of the top priorities for the Ohio State Conference of the NAACP for this reason and we call on the Ohio legislature to end it immediately.

Tom Roberts is a lifelong Daytonian and president of the Ohio Conference of the NAACP.

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