When John Winfield was sentenced to life in prison last month for the robbery and shooting death of Toledoan Mark Ward in 2011, Lucas County’s last active capital murder case was closed.
In what may be the first time since the death penalty was reinstated in Ohio in 1981, no such cases are pending before the court. Not a single person was indicted in Lucas County on capital charges this year or last.
It’s a situation that reflects a statewide trend toward fewer death penalty prosecutions.
Ohio Supreme Court records show that just nine individuals were indicted in the state on capital murder charges through July, and just 36 for all of last year. That compares to 159 indictments in 1983, 109 in 1993, and 95 in 2003.
A key reason for the decline is that since 2005, judges have had the option of sentencing those convicted of aggravated murder to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“If you’ve done a purposeful killing or a felony murder you can get life without parole — you can try it, plead to it — but we can get that, and we don’t have to go through what is torturous really,” Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates said.
Death-penalty cases are “torturous,” she said, for juries and judges charged with deciding whether someone should live or die, torturous for defense lawyers and prosecutors whose work really just begins when a defendant is convicted, torturous for victims’ families who must suffer through 15 to 20 years of appeals, and torturous for defendants sitting for years in solitary confinement on Death Row.
“It just seems there ought to be a better way,” Mrs. Bates said.
While she insisted her office is not deliberately avoiding death penalty prosecutions, she said it’s used only in cases considered “the worst form of the offense, the worst form of the offender.”
“We think it through. We debate it, analyze it,” she said. “Are there mitigating factors? Is the person mentally ill, mentally retarded, young — all of those factors are important to analyze. How bad of a crime is it?”
She said it also is imperative that the case be rock solid in terms of evidence.
“I believe that in a capital case there should be no doubt about guilt,” Mrs. Bates said. “The guilt should be absolute. It should be unquestionable.”
Ohio law allows prosecutors to seek the death penalty only in cases where certain circumstances exist, including the purposeful killing of two or more victims, of a law enforcement officer or a child younger than 13, as well as in cases in which an aggravated murder is committed while the offender committed rape, kidnapping, aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary, or aggravated arson.
A 20-member task force appointed by Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor expects to make recommendations to the state’s top court for possible changes to the death penalty by March, said Lucas County Common Pleas Judge Linda Jennings, the only local member of the group.
“We’re looking at every single issue to make sure that the death penalty is administered fairly,” Judge Jennings said.
Many feel it is not.
“I personally am opposed to the death penalty because I think it is applied unevenly and unfairly at times,” said Toledo attorney Pete Rost, who has represented defendants in capital cases.
In cases that meet the criteria for the death penalty, prosecutors may — or may not — seek it. Some prosecutors choose not to because of the high cost. Others may have strong moral convictions for or against it.
The death penalty also is problematic because defendants on Death Row have been exonerated by DNA and other newly discovered evidence.
“If the ultimate punishment is death, and we know the system is imperfect, that’s a pretty drastic remedy,” defense attorney Alan Konop said.
Allison Smith, spokesman for Ohioans to Stop Executions, which advocates abolishing the death penalty, said that to date in Ohio, six men who were sentenced to death have been exonerated.
“All Ohioans agree that it is unacceptable to execute an innocent man,” she said. “In short, the death penalty is a broken system. We can do better for victims’ family members and do better to keep Ohio communities safe.”
While Lucas County brought a high of 17 indictments with death penalty specifications in 1993, the number has been dwindling ever since. And statewide, very few capital cases actually result in a death sentence.
Many defendants enter into plea agreements rather than face the possibility of death as Winfield did in Lucas County Common Pleas Court last month.
Since 1981, Lucas County has sent 22 defendants to Death Row.
Of those, four were executed, the sentences of seven were commuted to prison terms, one died awaiting execution, and 10 remain on Death Row today.
Mrs. Bates, who became prosecutor in 1997, said she feels it’s time to eliminate the death penalty, but she said that as long as it’s the law, she will honor it.
“When I sit in this chair, I think I have a big responsibility,” Mrs. Bates said. “I think I can’t just be willy-nilly throwing this at people, but it is the law of our state so what do we do with it?”
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-213-2134.