Two death sentences, two reversals after independent review …

Most death penalty rulings by the Ohio Supreme Court involve issues raised by condemned inmates themselves: bad defense attorneys, overzealous prosecutors, biased juries, etc. But the court also conducts its own review of individual death sentences, and sometimes finds things both sides missed. Twice this fall, the court overturned death sentences based on such reviews.

In October, I wrote about the court’s rejection of death for Bennie Adams, convicted of killing a Youngstown State University student thirty years ago on the grounds that prosecutors hadn’t proved an aggravated burglary charge. On Tuesday, the court said that based on its own review of Rayshawn Johnson’s case, his troubled childhood in Cincinnati–as a boy he learned the drug trade from his mother, for example–outweighed the horrific nature of his crime, in which he beat a woman living next door to death for about $50.

It’s unusual to see back-to-back reversals like this, but such independent analyses aren’t new. In 2004, the Ohio Supreme Court overturned the conviction and death sentence of Terrell Yarbrough for killing two Franciscan University students in 2000. The court concluded that everyone in the case, from prosecutors to defense attorneys, had missed the obvious: though the kidnapping of the students started in Ohio, the killings happened in Pennsylvania and thus the defendants shouldn’t have been prosecuted here. It was such an extraordinary ruling that then Chief Justice Thomas Moyer took the nearly unprecedented step of calling me and other reporters to explain the decision. Eventually, Yarbrough was retried in Pennsylvania and sentenced to life in prison, as was a co-defendant who hadn’t originally received the death penalty.

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