COLUMBUS, Ohio — Factors that can lead to a death penalty case, such as murders committed during robberies, burglaries or rapes, would be stripped from Ohio’s death penalty law to focus on the worst of the worst killers, under a recommendation by a task force studying changes to the law.
The proposal would limit capital prosecutions to cases involving multiple victims, killings of children under 13, slayings of police officers and crimes committed to eliminate witnesses, among other of the most serious factors, according to the proposal approved earlier this month by the Ohio Supreme Court committee.
The recommendation was based on arguments that elements such as kidnapping or burglary rarely result in death sentences — and when they do, they often carry the greatest risk of racial disparity among defendants.
Numerous Ohio inmates would never have gone to death row in the past 30 years had such a rule been in place, including five of the last 10 inmates put to death.
The proposal would eliminate kidnapping, rape, aggravated arson, aggravated robbery and aggravated burglary as factors that could lead to a death penalty. The result, supporters say, is a racially neutral law that targets the most heinous criminals.
“By removing these, you not only get rid of cases that are clearly not in society’s eyes the worst of the worst, you also remove the greatest racial influence in the death penalty,” said State Public Defender Tim Young, chairman of the subcommittee that made the recommendations.
The proposal’s chances are uncertain at best. Lawmakers would have to approve such a sweeping change, and it would likely face stiff opposition from death penalty supporters backed by local prosecutors.
The Supreme Court task force is scheduled to complete its work this year, meaning it would likely be 2014 before legislation could even be introduced.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor convened the task force last year, instructing it to look for ways to make the current law — enacted in 1981 — more fair, while making it clear that eliminating capital punishment was not up for discussion.
The recommendation passed 12-2, though several members weren’t present for the vote. Among those was Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, who said he strongly opposes the change.
He points to a death penalty case he brought last week in which a defendant allegedly pursued and shot to death the owner of a pizzeria as the owner tried to escape. Deters used the aggravated robbery factor to elevate the killing to a capital punishment case.
“People who are that callous and murderous deserve the death penalty,” Deters said.
Committee chairman James Brogan, a retired state appeals court judge who voted for the change, said he supports the death penalty but also think it needs to be narrowed to the worst of the worst killers.
Were the changes enacted, Ohio’s law would more closely resemble those of Kansas or New Hampshire, which don’t specify added factors such as robbery or burglary. Laws vary across the remaining 32 states with capital punishment, but both California — with the nation’s largest death row — and Texas — with the country’s busiest death chamber — have laws so broad that almost any killing could be prosecuted as a capital case.
The task force also recommended the creation of a panel overseen by the state attorney general that would have the final say on bringing death penalty charges in Ohio. That recommendation would likely face strong opposition too.