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Death row shrinks as new sentences dwindle

The head count on Ohio’s death row continues to decline, as the killers who either are executed, die in prison of other causes, win appeals or receive clemency outnumber new death sentences, which have slowed to a trickle.

Ohio courts handed down just three new death sentences in 2012. Meanwhile, three killers were executed, one died in prison, one had his death sentence vacated but remains in prison, two received clemency and life sentences from Gov. John Kasich and one inmate, Thomas Michael Keenan of Cleveland, was released on appeal because of prosecutorial misconduct in his case. That leaves 142 people — 141 men and one woman — on Ohio’s death row today, down from 147 a year ago and 204 in January 2003.

New death sentences decreasing

The number of new death sentences in Ohio and other states with capital punishment have dropped sharply in recent years. It’s a trend experts attribute to increased public skepticism about the penalty in an era of high-profile DNA exonerations, the staggering costs associated with pursuing death sentences and the option now in all 33 death-penalty states of sentencing killers to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Five states have abolished the death penalty since 2000.

Nationwide, there were 77 new death sentences in 2012, virtually unchanged from 76 in 2011, according to the Death Penalty Information Center of Washington, D.C. That’s the second-lowest number of new sentences since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and a far cry from the record 315 new death sentences U.S. courts handed down in 1996. Ohio’s three new sentences in 2012 were up one from the two in 2011, but down markedly from the record 24 imposed in 1985.

“There is no singular reason” for the decline, said Ohio Public Defender Tim Young. “It’s a combination of things.”

Among the factors, he said, are “evolving societal values” and a change in “the idea of what ‘the worst of the worst’ is.” The availability of life without parole gives prosecutors more options in charging defendants and negotiating plea deals, and gives juries the option of ensuring that killers are taken off the streets permanently without being executed. And the cost to the public of prosecuting and defending death cases is becoming harder to justify as budgets tighten.

“The cost is extraordinary,” Young said. “Judges, prosecutors, county commissioners are all extremely cognizant of the cost.”

More survivors of murder victims also feel that life without parole allows for quicker “closure” than a death sentence that involves years of appeals, he said.

The death penalty is still a reality in Ohio

There are  executions scheduled for 13 killers between March and March 2015, including Dennis McGuire of Preble County, who is scheduled to die Jan. 16, 2014. Most of their crimes date to the 1980s and ’90s.

In Ohio, prosecutors can seek the death penalty in cases of aggravated murder under certain circumstances, including the killing of a child or a police officer, murders with multiple victims, murder for hire or to prevent a witness from testifying, and killings that are done during the commission of certain other felonies like robbery, burglary and kidnapping.

Young said preliminary data being compiled by his office show that the death penalty is imposed in 25-30 percent of cases involving multiple murders, but only about 2 percent of the time when murders are combined with other felonies. This suggests, he said, that it may be time to narrow the types of offenses that carry a possible death penalty.

The data also show there are fewer racial disparities in imposing the death penalty when multiple murders are involved, Young said.

Requirements for a death verdict

Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser said there’s “no question about it” that the death penalty is used more rarely than in the past.

At one time, he said, obtaining a death sentence “was left more open to excellent argumentation and creativity” by prosecutors. Over time, he said, the law has become more specific about what elements are required for a death verdict, and prosecutors with tight budgets and limited staffing are being more selective about seeking the death penalty.

“I would not want the public to think that life and death is only a matter of money,” Gmoser said. But the cost to taxpayers of prosecuting and defending death cases from trials through years of appeals is “a reality” officials must weigh.

Gmoser said he and his assistants carefully examine the facts of every potential new death case to determine the likelihood of a death sentence, including the outcome of similar past cases.

The call on whether to seek the death penalty is “probably the most serious and important decision I ever make in this office,” he said. “The case has to shock the conscience of this community.”

Life without parole

Since 1998, Ohio jurors have had the option of sentencing defendants to life without parole in death penalty cases. Since 2005, prosecutors have had the option of seeking life without parole instead of the death sentence. Previously, the harshest punishment short of death was life with the possibility of parole in 30 years.

Gmoser said life without parole keeps killers off the streets and is a strong punishment, without the costs and “seemingly never-ending” appeals involved in death cases. “As far as society is concerned, that person might just as well be dead,” he said.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the low number of new death sentences underlines the capriciousness of the penalty in a nation with 14,000 murders a year.

“The point we’re trying to make is, it’s less relevant,” he said. “It’s not a regular punishment. It raises the question of why are we picking out these people (for execution). It’s not unconstitutional, but it is questionable.”

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