Capital punishment has been part of Ohio’s justice system since statehood in 1803, and The Blade’s editorial page has a tradition of supporting it. It’s a tradition I oppose, even as its deputy editor.
I couldn’t persuade Publisher and Editor-in-Chief John Robinson Block, who sincerely supports capital punishment, to change The Blade’s long-standing position. But I can argue, as an individual, that Ohio should follow the lead of six other states that have, in as many years, abolished this costly, impractical, inhumane, and unjust practice.
Ohio has executed more than 390 convicted murderers. Executions have continued since the early 1800s, except between 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional, and 1981, when Ohio lawmakers enacted the current capital punishment statute.
Even so, the state can offer no rational defense for it.
Some people argue, without evidence, that capital punishment deters heinous crimes. In fact, according to FBI crime statistics, murder rates in death-penalty states are significantly higher than those in states without the death penalty, and they have been for decades.
Nor does the deterrence argument make sense. Does anyone really believe that the difference between execution and life in prison would deter any murder, whether committed in passionate heat or cold-blooded calculation?
Another popular argument for the death penalty — one I saw again in The Blade’s Readers’ Forum last week — is that it saves taxpayers the expense of incarceration. In Ohio, it’s about $25,000 a year.
But the legal expenses of prosecuting death-penalty cases and fighting appeals are far higher. Prisoners often remain on death row for decades, while they exhaust a constitutional appeals process that can tap taxpayers $10 million per case.
A recent study in Colorado, published in the University of Denver Criminal Law review, found that capital proceedings require six times as many days in court as do life-without-parole cases. On average, death-penalty cases take almost four years longer to complete.
In California, a 2008 report by the Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice estimated that the death penalty costs the state at least $137 million a year. Just confining a death-row inmate costs $90,000 a year more than holding a maximum-security prisoner. Another study, completed in 2011 and updated last year, concluded that the death penalty had cost California more than $4 billion since 1978, including $1.7 billion in legal expenses for state and federal appeals.
Small wonder a conservative Republican commentator in North Carolina called the death penalty “the very epitome of a wasteful government program.”
More troubling is the possibility of executing the innocent. In the 1990s, DNA technology proved that innocent people have been convicted of crimes and sentenced to death. Wrongly convicting anyone constitutes a horrible injustice, but executing the wrong person eliminates any chance of reversing the error. Nationwide, more than 140 people awaiting execution have been exonerated. Mistakes are far more likely in cases involving poor defendants, who usually don’t have adequate legal counsel.
Even before DNA technology became prevalent, a study conducted by the Stanford Law Review documented two dozen cases in 1987 of persons sentenced to death that later had been released because of doubts concerning guilt.
Conservatives, especially, don’t trust government to do anything. Why would they want to give it power over life and death?
Mandatory life sentences — the alternative penalty in the 18 states that have abolished capital punishment — negate any public safety arguments for the death penalty. In fact, some people have argued against capital punishment solely because they believe life in prison inflicts more suffering.
Finally, the death penalty is criminally inequitable, disproportionately affecting African-Americans and other people of color. In Ohio, for example, more than half of the death-sentenced defendants since 1981 have been African-Americans, even though African-Americans make up less than 13 percent of the population. Eighteen African-Americans have been executed in Ohio under the 1981 law — 35 percent of the total.
Nationwide, African-Americans who kill whites are far more likely to get the death penalty than those who kill African-Americans.
Sentencing reforms cannot remedy deep-seated biases in the criminal justice system. They affect the quality of defendants’ legal counsel, police patrolling, arrest procedures, jury panels, and judges.
In truth, retribution is the only solid argument for capital punishment. It has driven the death penalty for more than 4,000 years, starting with stoning.
No doubt, the thirst for vengeance is almost universal. Victims of a brutal crime may feel it most of all.
In moments of anger or rage, I’ve wanted to kill or hurt people too, but checking emotions is part of living in a civil society.
Reason and redemption are also part of the human condition. Society, and the laws that uphold it, shouldn’t codify and cultivate people’s most atavistic impulses.
If anything, state-sponsored executions exacerbate violence and diminish respect for life. It’s as much about what it does to us as to the condemned.
Nationwide, capital punishment is becoming increasingly unusual, as defined by the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual standard. Last year, the nation carried out 43 executions — including three in Ohio — compared to 85 in 2000 and 98 in 1999, reports the Death Penalty Information Center. Most of the U.S. death-penalty cases have come from only 2 percent of the nation’s counties, many of them in Texas and California, another sign that death sentences are inequitable and arbitrary.
Former death-penalty supporter Edwin J. Peterson, who served as chief justice of Oregon’s Supreme Court, called the death penalty “dysfunctional, expensive, unworkable, and unfair.”
Former President Jimmy Carter last week became another voice calling for the end of the death penalty, saying governments too often impose it on the poor, minorities, and those with diminished capacities.
Ohio first used public hangings to execute convicted murderers, switching to the electric chair in 1897. In 2001, under the administration of Gov. Bob Taft, the state retired the electric chair. Since then, Ohio has relied on lethal injections.
Now, a nationwide shortage of lethal drugs has triggered another national debate on the death penalty. The evidence points to one verdict: Capital punishment should die in Ohio.
Jeff Gerritt is deputy editorial page editor of The Blade.