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July 21, 2021

Ohio Senate Committee Hears Testimony on Bill to Abolish Death Penalty

By Matt Propper, DPRP Intern

On June 16th, Ohio’s Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from supporters of Senate Bill 103, bipartisan legislation that would abolish the death penalty in the state.

A broad coalition of speakers—including the Ohio Public Defender, family members of homicide victims, religious leaders, and policy experts—made the case for ending Ohio’s death penalty. Drawing upon data, personal anecdotes, and historical lessons, proponents of abolition argued that a process marred by wrongful convictions, racial bias, geographic inequality, high costs, and enduring trauma for victim family members does not constitute equal justice under law.

Ohio Public Defender Tim Young highlighted the troubling regularity of wrongful capital convictions in Ohio, citing a statistic that one in five people sentenced to death in the state have been exonerated. Young, quoting famed capital defender Bryan Stevenson, illustrated the gravity of the statistic: “if one out of every five airplanes that took flight crashed…no one would travel by plane.” Rebecca Brown, Director of Policy at the Innocence Project, noted that with 11 exonerations since 1973, Ohio ranks sixth among all states in the number of death row exonerations. Brown added that one Ohio county in particular, Cuyahoga County, is “among the top-ten producers of exonerations” of any county in the United States.

Brown and Young expressed their doubts about the state’s ability to reform a system that relies on human judgement while necessitating infallibility. Young stated that despite a process with “so much opportunity for human error, we insist on a penalty that cannot be undone.” Brown argued that even DNA does not solve the problem of human error: “DNA testing is not a panacea that can prevent wrongful executions. It does not have the capacity to ensure either a fair or accurate application of the death penalty and its finality.” Young also highlighted another factor that leads to wrongful convictions—prosecutors wielding the threat of death to secure plea deals: “…innocent people are compelled to agree to life without the possibility of parole for a crime they did not commit if that means the state will not pursue the death penalty.”

Several speakers cited evidence of pervasive racial bias inherent in the application of the death penalty. Young explained that “the murder of a white victim is more likely to be solved than the murder of a Black victim, and killing a white victim is more likely to result in the death penalty than killing a Black victim.” Kevin Werner, Policy Director for the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, summed up the overrepresentation of defendants of color in in the death penalty system with four statistics: “people of color make up 15% of Ohio’s statewide population…account for 33% of the people executed by Ohio…and make up 56% of Ohio’s death row. Seventy-two percent of people exonerated in Ohio are people of color.” Young noted that this racial bias is not coincidental, but rather the latest manifestation of a long history of oppression. Quoting Robert Dunham, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center, Young pointed out that “the death penalty is inextricably linked to our history of slavery, of lynching, and Jim Crow segregation.”

Young also highlighted the geographic inequality of Ohio’s death penalty: “Almost half (45%) of Ohio’s executions have been from just three of the state’s 88 counties, specifically, Hamilton, Cuyahoga, and Summit counties. However, these counties only make up approximately one fourth of Ohio’s total population.”

During emotional testimony, Jonathan Mann, Vice Chair of Ohioans to Stop Executions, discussed his trauma experiencing the death penalty process as a family member of a homicide victim. He explained that “the death penalty is just a promise held out at the beginning of a decades-long torturous process that makes celebrities of the people who cause our families their deepest and most enduring pain.” Mann explained that spending money pursuing the death penalty deprives victims of resources:

In the wake of tragedy, families like mine need support. We need help burying our loved ones. We need grief counseling. We need financial assistance when we cannot make it to work. We need childcare for when we have to go to court appearances. We need help navigating the sudden loss of a breadwinner.

The speakers acknowledged that while the original purpose of the death penalty in Ohio—to help victims find closure and deter violent crime—was well-intentioned, the process has not accomplished either goal. Citing higher murder rates in death penalty states than in states without capital punishment, Young referred to the death penalty as “state sponsored vengeance” that is ineffective at achieving its goal of deterrence. Werner noted that the “architects” of Ohio’s modern death penalty system, including a former governor, several attorneys general, and an Ohio Supreme Court justice have now “raised grave concerns” regarding the punishment based on “overwhelming evidence of the system’s failures.” Rev. Dr. Jack Sullivan, Jr., the Executive Director of the Ohio Council of Churches, referenced the “false promises of the quicksand of retribution.” He argued that fighting violence with more violence simply adds fuel to the fire: “homicide to show that homicide is abhorrent, is itself, abhorrent…executions only exacerbate the cycle of death as they inflict reputational damage onto the state and erode its moral credibility and sense of integrity.”

A bipartisan group of senators responded favorably to the testimony. Four senators in particular—Niraj Antani (R-6), Teresa Fedor (D-11), Cecil Thomas (D-9), and Theresa Gavarone (R-2)—used their speaking time to offer support of the bill and condemn the death penalty in the state.

After the Senate Judiciary Committee concludes hearings on the bill, committee members will vote on whether to report the bill to the full Senate. If the bill advances, the full Senate will debate the bill before holding a floor vote. The companion bill in the Ohio House, House Bill 183, is currently in the Criminal Justice committee. 

The information and views provided in the American Bar Association (“ABA”) Death Penalty Representation Project’s blog do not constitute official statements by the ABA and do not represent official ABA policy. For more information, please visit our policy and statement pages.