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Capital punishment needs major changes in Ohio, panel says


The Ohio Supreme Court Death Penalty Task Force is recommending the most sweeping overhaul of capital punishment the state has seen in 30 years, including prohibiting executions of mentally ill prisoners and requiring DNA evidence or videotaped confessions before imposing a death sentence.

The 22-member task force report comes more than two years after it began debating ways to ensure that defendants in capital cases receive fair trials and effective legal counsel. The group specifically steered clear of two key questions: how much does capital punishment cost Ohio taxpayers and should Ohio abolish the death penalty?

Among the 56 recommendations:

* Create a statewide capital litigation fund to pay for the prosecution and defense in death penalty cases;

* Eliminate some crimes from being eligible for a capital sentence;

* Require strong evidence such as DNA or videotaped confessions before a death sentence can be imposed;

* Establish a statewide public defender system for representing indigent defendants at trial and in appeals;

* Ban the execution of prisoners who suffered from serious mental illness ill at the time of the murder or are mentally ill at the time of the scheduled execution; and

* Eliminate death penalty sentences based on jail house snitch testimony that isn’t independently corroborated.

The task force, led by retired 2nd District Court of Appeal Judge James Brogan, included law professors, defense attorneys, judges, prosecutors, lawmakers and others. It met Thursday to review the draft report.

The recommended changes, some of which must win approval from the Ohio General Assembly and governor, are expected to generate extensive public debate in the coming months. Local prosecutors will vigorously oppose some of the proposed changes, perhaps as early as Monday when the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association issues a dissenting report.

Prosecutors oppose a recommendation that would require them to get approval from a death penalty charging committee under the Ohio Attorney General before they could seek the death penalty in a case.

The report also calls for more training for attorneys handling death penalty cases, allowing Death Row inmates to be represented by counsel during clemency hearings, uniform fees for lawyers representing indigent defendants in capital cases and requiring that jury instructions be given in plain English instead of legalese.

“Even for death penalty supporters, today’s recommendations should be welcome. At the very least, Ohioans should not tolerate a system that executes people with mental illness, risks executing the innocent, and perpetuates unfair discrimination in our justice system,” said ACLU of Ohio spokesman Mike Brickner. “If Ohioans insist on keeping the death penalty, officials must do all they can to address these fundamental problems.”

Ohio adopted its current death penalty statute in 1981. It has executed 53 men since executions resumed in 1999.

Ohio made international headlines in January when it reportedly took 26 minutes to execute rapist-killer Dennis McGuire using a new, previously untested drug protocol.

Sixty-eight percent of Ohio voters favor the death penalty, according to a poll released in February by Quinnipiac University, but when asked if they’d prefer punishing killers with the death penalty or life in prison, support for capital punishment declined to 47 percent.



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