death penalty

Death Penalty-Ohio-Review

I’m dubbing it Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor’s “Nixon in China” moment. After years of unsuccessful calls to stop or at least review the state’s capital punishment law by  Democrats and death penalty opponents–usually one and the same, though not always–it took a former Republican prosecutor known for her tough-on-crime approach to undertake such an analysis via a working group of state experts. A few things made O’Connor’s decision possible. One, she   made it clear from the start that abolishing the law is not on the table and is not to be considered by her blue-chip panel. Second, she’s got time on her side: the law is 30 years old this fall, and even its most ardent supporters would have to agree that some kind of check-up is warranted. Third, the death penalty has sunk well under the radar of most Ohioans, with news of major court rulings and even executions often consigned to the back pages of papers or the end of newscasts. It simply is no longer the big deal it used to be, and is more reminiscent of the last century before the 1960s, when executions  happened a half dozen times a year or so with relative little publicity. As a result, the group’s work itself will probably fly under the radar, at least for a while. Fourth, and somewhat related, although Ohio has been scheduling executions about once a month, the number of death sentences in the state and nationally has plummeted in recent years. The drop in its application provides a golden opportunity to see what the imposition of  the punishment should look down the road. Still, it remains to be seen whether O’Connor’s committee can overcome the differences of its members to say anything substantive. To her credit, the chief justice has assembled an all-star cast: Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, who has put the most people on death row in Ohio but who is also known for carefully selecting which cases he targets for capital punishment; state Sen. Shirley Smith, an opponent who tried in vain four times to get a moratorium or study bill through the Legislature; Phyllis Crocker, a Cleveland State law professor who oversaw the American Bar Association’s 495-page review in 2007 that criticized the state’s law; defense attorney John Parker, whose clients have included Cleveland serial killer Anthony Sowell; Stephen Schumaker, now of the Ohio Attorney General’s Office but a former long-time Clark County prosecutor; etc. etc. It became clear at the group’s first meeting this month that task force members were bringing well-known positions to the table, and in truth, not much new was raised. The strain on underpaid defense attorneys has long been noted. The concern that outcomes vary widely between counties is a traditional complaint. Using capital punishment as a plea bargaining tool: an old issue. While the big achievement might seem to have been creating such a group to begin with, the real challenge is seeing how far its members are willing to move off their established talking points to make any changes to the law.

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