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Published: Saturday, 11/27/2010

Fix Ohio's death-penalty mess

This month, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland granted clemency to a death-row inmate for the fifth time in his administration. The governor spared Sidney Cornwell from execution after he learned the jury in the case was not told about a genetic disorder Cornwell had that could have lessened his sentence.

Mr. Strickland made the correct decision in this case. But the array of problems with capital punishment in Ohio over the past four years demands stronger, broader action before the governor leaves office in January.

Concern over the possibility that innocent people may be executed continues to grow. Of the five clemency orders Mr. Strickland has issued, three cited evidence that the person may have been wrongfully convicted.

According to the Office of the Ohio Public Defender, 27 men on the state's death row have had their convictions vacated or their sentences reduced since February 2006. In the same period, 22 men were executed.

In other words, more people left death row through judicial reversals than executions. How many more people awaiting execution should not be on death row?

Joe D'Ambrosio was one of the 27 men. After 21 years on death row, he was released in March after courts concluded prosecutors had withheld evidence that would have likely proved his innocence. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments on Tuesday to determine whether he may be tried again.

Other questions about fundamental fairness in the justice system continue to haunt Ohio's application of the death penalty.

In 2007, an American Bar Association report identified troubling flaws in the system: inadequate access to attorneys, bias, and prosecutorial misconduct. The report echoed previous studies that showed the death penalty is enforced unequally based on race, income level, and geography.

The method used to execute people in Ohio has also come under intense scrutiny. During Governor Strickland's term, there have been two botched executions - one inmate survived; the other did not. A third botched execution occurred only seven months before he took office.

As a result, Ohio became the first state to use an experimental single-drug procedure for lethal injection. Although no significant problems have been reported, so little is known about the procedure that questions persist about whether it is a humane or effective method of execution.

Ohio also faces a nationwide shortage of the drug used in the procedure. The state may have to suspend executions until additional doses can be found, or use an alternate untested procedure.

Yet our state still turns a blind eye to mounting evidence of serious problems with nearly every aspect of the death penalty system. Ohio is second only to Texas in the number of executions it has carried out. This year, it has put more people to death than in any other year in more than six decades.

Recent studies show that fewer Americans favor the death penalty. In a nationwide survey of 1,500 registered voters, the Death Penalty Information Center found that two-thirds of respondents preferred sentences other than the death penalty for murder.

Nearly two-thirds support scrapping capital punishment in favor of life in prison without the possibility of parole, if the money saved could be used to fight crime. As elected officials debate Ohio's budget, this is a strong indication that voters want their resources directed to initiatives that will prevent crime, not just punish criminals.

Respected leaders such as Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeiffer have called for a blue-ribbon commission to study how Ohio enforces the death penalty. As one of the architects of the state's modern death penalty, Justice Pfeiffer now questions whether it has been used too broadly and unfairly.

As he prepares to leave office Jan. 11, Governor Strickland must consider his legacy. I urge him not only to work with Justice Pfeiffer to create the study commission, but also to use his authority broadly to grant clemency to those on death row.

A comprehensive study will take considerable time. In the meantime, Ohio cannot risk executing someone who may be innocent.

Ted Strickland will leave office as the governor who presided over the largest number of executions in Ohio's modern history. He can also be the governor who protected justice and initiated much-needed reform of a broken system.

Carrie L. Davis is staff counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

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