Capital punishment needs major changes in Ohio, panel says

Timeline of Capital Punishment in Ohio

1803-1885: executions are carried out as public hangings in the counties where the crimes were committed.

1885: executions are moved to the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus.

1897: the electric chair replaces the gallows and a 17-year-old boy is the first prisoner to be electrocuted.

March 15, 1963: the electric chair is used for the last time when Donald Reinbolt, 29, is put to death. The electric chair was used to put 315 people to death.

1972: the U.S. Supreme Court declares the death penalty is unconstitutional, reducing the death sentences for 65 inmates to life in prison. Death row is moved to Lucasville.

1974: Ohio lawmakers revise the state death penalty law but it is rejected four years later by the U.S. Supreme Court. As a result, 120 condemned prisoners’ sentences are commuted to life in prison.

Oct. 19, 1981: the current death penalty statute takes effect.

January 1991: Days before leaving office, Gov. Richard Celeste commutes the death sentences for eight inmates to life in prison.

1993: Gov. George Voinovich signs a bill into law giving condemned prisoners a choice between electrocution and lethal injection, with the default method being lethal injection.

Feb. 19, 1999: inmate Wilford Berry becomes the first inmate to be executed in Ohio since 1963. He voluntarily waived all of his appeals and opted for lethal injection.

Nov. 15, 2001: Gov. Bob Taft signs a law that eliminated the electric chair as a form of execution.

Feb. 26, 2002: Ohio’s electric chair – “Old Sparky” – is retired and later donated to the Ohio Historical Society.

June 26, 2003: Taft commutes the sentence of Jerome Campbell to life in prison without parole.

October 2005: Death row is moved from Mansfield to the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown.

Jan 9, 2008: Gov. Ted Strickland commutes John Spirko’s death sentence to life in prison without parole.

Feb. 12, 2009: Strickland commutes the sentence of inmate Jeffrey Hill to life with parole eligibility after 25 years.

Nov. 30, 2009: Ohio becomes the first state to adopt a one-drug protocol for lethal injections.

June 4, 2010: Ted Strickland commutes Richard Nields’ sentence to life without parole.

Sept. 2, 2010: Strickland commutes Kevin Keith’s sentence to life without parole.

Nov. 15, 2010: Strickland commutes Sidney Cornwell’s sentence to life without parole.

May 2011: Gov. John Kasich commutes Shawn Hawkins’ sentence to life without parole.

Sept. 26, 2011: Kasich commutes Joseph Murphy’s sentence to life without parole.

January 2012: Death row is moved to Chillicothe Correctional Institution.

June 10, 2012: Kasich commutes John Eley’s sentence to life without parole.

Dec. 17, 2012: Kasich commutes Ron Post’s sentence to life without parole.

Jan. 16, 2014: Ohio makes international news when it takes 26 minutes to execute Dennis McGuire using an untested lethal drug protocol.

April 2014: The Ohio Supreme Court Death Penalty Task Force recommends 56 changes to capital punishment laws and procedures.

Source: Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction

The Ohio Supreme Court Death Penalty Task Force is recommending the most sweeping overhaul of capital punishment the state has seen in 30 years, including prohibiting executions of mentally ill prisoners and requiring DNA evidence or videotaped confessions before imposing a death sentence.

The 22-member task force report comes more than two years after it began debating ways to ensure that defendants in capital cases receive fair trials and effective legal counsel. The group specifically steered clear of two key questions: how much does capital punishment cost Ohio taxpayers and should Ohio abolish the death penalty?

Among the 56 recommendations:

* Create a statewide capital litigation fund to pay for the prosecution and defense in death penalty cases;

* Eliminate some crimes from being eligible for a capital sentence;

* Require strong evidence such as DNA or videotaped confessions before a death sentence can be imposed;

* Establish a statewide public defender system for representing indigent defendants at trial and in appeals;

* Ban the execution of prisoners who suffered from serious mental illness ill at the time of the murder or are mentally ill at the time of the scheduled execution; and

* Eliminate death penalty sentences based on jail house snitch testimony that isn’t independently corroborated.

The task force, led by retired 2nd District Court of Appeal Judge James Brogan, included law professors, defense attorneys, judges, prosecutors, lawmakers and others. It met Thursday to review the draft report.

The recommended changes, some of which must win approval from the Ohio General Assembly and governor, are expected to generate extensive public debate in the coming months. Local prosecutors will vigorously oppose some of the proposed changes, perhaps as early as Monday when the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association issues a dissenting report.

Prosecutors oppose a recommendation that would require them to get approval from a death penalty charging committee under the Ohio Attorney General before they could seek the death penalty in a case.

The report also calls for more training for attorneys handling death penalty cases, allowing Death Row inmates to be represented by counsel during clemency hearings, uniform fees for lawyers representing indigent defendants in capital cases and requiring that jury instructions be given in plain English instead of legalese.

“Even for death penalty supporters, today’s recommendations should be welcome. At the very least, Ohioans should not tolerate a system that executes people with mental illness, risks executing the innocent, and perpetuates unfair discrimination in our justice system,” said ACLU of Ohio spokesman Mike Brickner. “If Ohioans insist on keeping the death penalty, officials must do all they can to address these fundamental problems.”

Ohio adopted its current death penalty statute in 1981. It has executed 53 men since executions resumed in 1999.

Ohio made international headlines in January when it reportedly took 26 minutes to execute rapist-killer Dennis McGuire using a new, previously untested drug protocol.

Sixty-eight percent of Ohio voters favor the death penalty, according to a poll released in February by Quinnipiac University, but when asked if they’d prefer punishing killers with the death penalty or life in prison, support for capital punishment declined to 47 percent.

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