Guest column/The end of the road for Ohio’s death penalty
Growing up in the Ohio Valley in the 1990s it was common to take a weekend trip to the now-defunct West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville. Why? To see the now-decommissioned electric chair known as “Old Sparky.” I remember looking at the chair horrified by the story being told by my tour guide and the placards on the wall. I simply could not believe that the wooden chair I was viewing had taken the lives of nine people. It was surreal. I was a kid, and that’s probably the first time I really thought about our country’s use of capital punishment. Now, it’s something I think about every day.
The death penalty is going out of style — 23 states plus Washington, D.C., have already cut ties with executions, and Ohio should be next. Whether you are concerned by the brutality of the system, its fundamental unfairness, exorbitant costs or are prolife in all respects, there are many reasons to come to the table to support death penalty repeal. A recent poll in Ohio by the Tarrance Group affirmed this recent sea change in attitudes about capital punishment, showing that 59 percent of those surveyed support replacing the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole. Bipartisan support is strong, with 69 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of Republicans supporting death penalty repeal.
The death penalty is also at least three times more expensive than other sentencing options. It is estimated that death penalty trials cost Ohio taxpayers as much as $16 million per case. It’s no surprise that California recently made headlines for plans to dismantle its death row. It’s expensive to have a death row, especially when your state is under a formal or informal moratorium. California has been under an official moratorium for more than three years. Ohio is also one such example — we have not carried out an execution since July 2018. Gov. Mike DeWine entered his first term with seven scheduled executions, and he issued a reprieve for all of them. It begs the question — why not cut the cord completely?
Additionally, the death penalty is an arbitrary, unfair system. In fact, former Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeiffer noted in his piece “Ohio’s Modern Death Penalty — From Architect to Opponent” that “Ohio’s death penalty statute has, in practice, resulted in a “death lottery” that should be abandoned.” Skin color and location have more to do with whether a person will receive a death sentence than any other factor. As of fall 2020, more than half (56 percent) of Ohio’s death row are people of color, even though they make up a very small fraction (15 percent) of Ohio’s population. When Ohio executions have taken place, 75 percent of the time the crime committed has involved a white victim. Only 2 percent of all counties are responsible for 52 percent of executions since the death penalty was re-established in 1976. Ohio has two counties on that list — Cuyahoga and Hamilton.
We also get it wrong, repeatedly. Innocent people are far too often sentenced to death. Ohio is home to 11 death row exonerees who collectively spent 216 years incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. Put another way, 11 innocent people spent more than two centuries in prison. Think about the ripple effect — the lives needlessly upended, the community and family impacts, the generational pain and trauma for everyone involved. Put another way, for every five people Ohio has executed, one has been exonerated from death row.
The death penalty is a wasteful, risky program. For the first time in decades, it’s beginning to look like the end is near. Almost one year ago, Ohio lawmakers from across the aisle joined together to introduce companion death penalty repeal bills — Senate Bill 103 and House Bill 183. With support from conservatives, progressives, faith leaders, social justice advocates and everyone in-between, these bills are winding their way through the Ohio Statehouse. It’s time to stop kicking the can down the road and end Ohio’s use of the death penalty once and for all.
(Rosnick was born in Steubenville and grew up in Weirton. She is policy director for the ACLU of Ohio, where she advocates for civil liberties and works on issues from criminal justice to free speech.)