Death-penalty opponents appeal to end the system

The center said 43 executions have been carried out across the nation this year, three fewer than in 2010 and a 57 percent drop since 1999

By Alan Johnson
The Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Against a backdrop of a 35-year low in U.S. death sentences, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, family members of murder victims, and Death Row exonerees yesterday urged state lawmakers to abolish capital punishment.

"The death penalty in Ohio has become what I call a death lottery," Pfeifer told the House Criminal Justice Committee. "The application is hit or miss depending on where you happen to commit the crime and the attitude of the prosecutor in that county."

He added: "I believe Ohio is no longer well served by our death-penalty statute. It should be repealed."

The legislative hearing on House Bill 160, a proposal to repeal Ohio's death-penalty law in place since 1981, came hours before the Death Penalty Information Center released its annual year-end report showing that Ohio's five executions in 2011 ranked third nationally behind Texas (13) and Alabama (6), and just ahead of Georgia and Arizona (4 each).

The center said 43 executions have been carried out across the nation this year, three fewer than in 2010 and a 57 percent drop since 1999.

Ohio executed eight men in 2010, second in the nation to Texas, and was on track to exceed that total this year. However, legal challenges to the state's lethal-injection protocol and two clemencies granted by Gov. John Kasich stopped several executions.

The Washington, D.C.-based, nonpartisan center's report said Ohio had two new death sentences this year, including mass murderer Anthony Sowell of Cleveland. That compares with six in 2010.

The number of new death sentences nationally dropped even more dramatically, from 112 to 78, the lowest for any year since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.

Pfeifer's outspoken testimony was unusual for a sitting jurist who continues to hear death-penalty appeals on a regular basis. He said he has no intention of recusing himself from those cases.

"If you aren't going to consider this, who will? If not now, when? If not you, who?" Pfeifer asked the committee.

Pfeifer, a maverick Republican from Bucyrus who is ending his 19th year on the court, has advocated abolishing the death penalty for nearly two years. He was one of three Republican state senators who resurrected Ohio's capital punishment statute in 1981 after the old law had been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

At the time, Pfeifer wanted to include the potential punishment of life without the possibility of parole, but that wasn't enacted until 1995.

Also testifying were two men who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death.

Derrick Jamison was freed after 17 years for the 1984 murder of Cincinnati bartender Gary Mitchell. Dale Johnston was exonerated in 1990 after serving seven years for the dismemberment slayings of his daughter, Annette Cooper, and her friend Todd Schultz.

Jamison tearfully recounted the death of his mother and father while he was in prison. "I am not a statistic. I am a person, a child of God who did not deserve the death penalty," he said.

Johnston, who now lives in Grove City, said he supported the death penalty before his daughter's murder and his wrongful incarceration. "I am living proof that the death-penalty system is not applied fairly," he added "The death penalty must be abolished."

Chris Stout of Dublin, a former state-prison corrections officer, described his 27-year struggle after his mother was murdered and his father permanently disabled in 1984 by two men who showed up at their door asking to use the phone.

After lengthy appeals and reversals in the courts, the case remains undecided. Stout said he is "100 percent disillusioned by this process. ... We're the ones who've become the walking dead."

"I need the death penalty to be over and I need people to listen to me when I say, 'Do not do this for me and my family. We've been through enough, and we want it to end.' "

Lawrence Herman, a former Ohio State University law professor, said he thinks capital punishment should be repealed, in part because innocent people are wrongfully convicted.

"It's certainly likely ... that we have executed several persons that were factually innocent," Herman said.

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