Supreme Court won’t decide if Ohio’s death penalty is constitutional

A death chamber at the Southern Ohio Corrections Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Caption
A death chamber at the Southern Ohio Corrections Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

Rejecting a chance to decide whether Ohio’s death penalty law violates the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way Monday for a state court to hold a sentencing hearing for a man convicted of murder and rape in 1993 in Marion County.

The justices, without comment, chose not to review an Ohio Supreme Court decision last April that the state’s death penalty is constitutional. Instead, the Marion court of common pleas will determine whether Maurice Mason of Marion should be sentenced to death for the murder and rape of 19-year-old Robin Dennis.

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Attorneys for Mason argued that Ohio’s death penalty law violates the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee to a jury trial because even though a jury recommends the death sentence, the trial judge is required to conduct an independent review of the evidence before agreeing with the jury’s recommendation to impose the death penalty.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2016 struck down a Florida death penalty law in which a jury could issue an advisory opinion of life in prison or death. But the Florida law allowed a trial judge to rule that aggravating circumstances not considered by the jury could lead to the death sentence.

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Kort Gatterdam, a Columbus attorney representing Mason, said he was “disappointed” that the justices did not take the case.

“We were hopeful they would take a look at Ohio’s statute because it had the same flaws as Florida’s,” he said.

The Ohio Supreme Court last April ruled Ohio law “requires a jury to find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of at least one aggravating circumstance before the matter proceeds to the penalty phase when the jury can recommend a death sentence.”

“Ohio’s scheme differs from Florida’s because Ohio requires the jury to make this specific and critical finding,” the court concluded.

Mason was sentenced to death by a state court. But the 6th U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati in 2008 invalidated the sentence, concluding his counsel provided him with “ineffective assistance.” The court of appeals ordered a new sentencing hearing. That hearing can now go forward.