An Ohio Supreme Court task force analyzing ways to make Ohio’s 30-year-old capital punishment law more effective and fair has done its job. It has offered more than 50 prudent recommendations that the General Assembly should enact or the Supreme Court should adopt.
The proposals would make fewer crimes eligible for the death penalty in Ohio, reduce chances of wrongful convictions, and help ensure an adequate defense in capital cases.
Among the most important recommendations is banning the death penalty for inmates diagnosed with a serious mental illness at the time of the crime. The U.S. Supreme Court already has ruled against executing mentally disabled inmates and juveniles.
A serious mental illness impairs thinking, judgment, and self-control, and it should be considered a mitigating condition. Mental health advocates estimate that as many as 10 percent of U.S. death row inmates have a serious mental illness.
Changing the law to remove the death penalty for seriously mentally ill inmates would not exonerate them. Such offenders would still likely serve life sentences with no chance for parole.
Another major proposal would bolster appeals after convictions by creating a post-conviction defense organization that would represent capital defendants and providing adequate funds for investigators and experts in such cases.
Some proposals would reduce the chance of a wrongful conviction in a capital case, such as prohibiting the death penalty in cases where prosecutors relied on jailhouse informant testimony uncorroborated by other evidence, or where DNA or biological evidence was lacking.
Equally important, the task force urged changes to make trials fairer and ensure an adequate and robust defense in capital cases. Among other things, it recommended mandatory recording of interrogations of suspects in custody and increased funding for the Office of the Ohio Public Defender for hiring and training additional capital case defense attorneys; as it stands, public defense in Ohio is severely underfunded. Another change would require the Ohio Parole Board to record clemency hearings.
The 22-member Joint Task Force to Review Ohio’s Death Penalty — including prosecutors, public defenders, judges, and experts on capital punishment — did not examine whether Ohio’s death penalty law should be abolished. It was named two years ago by Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and the Ohio State Bar Association.
Even the most ardent supporters of the death penalty should acknowledge that it is sometimes applied unfairly. A 2007 review of Ohio’s death penalty concluded that murderers with a white victim were nearly four times as likely to receive the death penalty as those whose victims were black.
Ohio’s death penalty law will remain, but the state must ensure it is applied in a fair and unbiased way. If these proposals are adopted and enacted, they can take Ohio a long way toward that end.