Monday, January 31, 2011

Ohio Should be the Next State to Abolish Capital Punishment

The man who helped craft the state's death penalty law wants to end capital punishment.
Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer wants the new governor, a fellow Republican, to abolish the death penalty and commute all death sentences to life without parole.
At his swearing-in ceremony Pfeifer told reporters, "I think the time's right on this. You have Republicans in every direction. With that political configuration, it would be the most opportune time to seriously debate and discuss whether or not we have the death penalty."
Pfeifer called capital punishment a lottery.
He's right. Too often those who end up on death row are poor, people of color, and have mental illnesses or extremely low IQs.
Right now, Ohio has 157 inmates on death row. Of those, 43 were sentenced before a 1996 law gave juries the option of life without parole.
Here's the race breakdown according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction: 81 are African American, 69 are Caucasian, four are Hispanic, two are Arab Americans and one is a Native American. Only one person on death row is a woman.
Across the country, we've seen over 100 men walk off death row because eyewitnesses lied or were mistaken, because the DNA didn't match, because police, prosecutors or lab techs made mistakes or mishandled evidence.
There have been 266 post-conviction DNA exonerations, according to The Innocence Project. Across the country, 138 death row inmates have been exonerated, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Five have been in Ohio.
Kenney Richey spent 21 years on Ohio's death row. He is now a free man. An appeals court found his attorney was inept and the arson expert who testified in the case was no expert.
Joe D'Ambrosio was on Ohio's death row for 20 years. A judge ruled that prosecutors in Cuyahoga County withheld 10 pieces of evidence in his trial. He is now a free man.
We know we can't trust Ohio's justice system 100 percent. Just ask Michael Green, Donte L. Booker, Jimmy "Spunk" Williams, Brian Piszczek and Clarence Elkins. They were also wrongfully convicted.
And there are unresolved questions in other cases.
Tyrone Noling is still on death row for the 1990 murders of an Atwater Township couple. No physical evidence connected him to the crime. He was convicted based on what his three buddies said. They have all since recanted.
Arthur Tyler is on death row for killing a produce vendor. Minutes after the man was shot, another man confessed. He told friends, his mom, police and signed a confession. Then he got a deal with prosecutors and fingered Tyler.
Eleven years ago, the governor of Illinois declared a moratorium on executions after the death sentences of 13 people were overturned. Gov. George Ryan, a Republican, commuted all 167 inmates on death row. The committee he appointed to study the justice system came up with 85 suggested reforms.
Those reforms include having the police pursue all reasonable lines of inquiry even after a suspect has been identified, having all homicide suspect interrogations videotaped, not allowing the death penalty be considered for any murder convictions based on the testimony of a single eye-witness or accomplice, having all police, judges, prosecutors and attorneys working on capital cases get better training about the risk of false testimony by jailhouse snitches, the handling of forensic evidence, the risk of false confessions.
Unfortunately, we can't find and fix every flaw in the justice system.
Pfeifer is right. We need to do what Illinois did. Its House and Senate just passed a bill to abolish the death penalty.
Ohio should do the same.
Terry Collins watched the state of Ohio kill 33 men.
Every time he drove to work for each execution he wondered:
What if this one isn't guilty? What if somebody missed something? Are we really sure? What if we're wrong this time?
Collins retired last year as director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. He worked in the prison system for 32 years. He served as the warden of three prisons, Lorain Correctional Institution in Grafton, Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville and Ross Correctional Institution in Chillicothe.
When Collins started working in the prison system in 1977, Gary Beeman was on death row. Beeman was exonerated in 1979.
"We have the greatest justice system in the world, but we're all still human," Collins told me. "As great as the system is, there can still be mistakes made. If you execute somebody, you cannot correct that mistake."
Across the country, we know of at least 138 mistakes that got corrected before it was too late. That's how many men have been exonerated from Death Row. Six were from Ohio: Beeman, Dale Johnston, Timothy Howard, Gary Lamar James, Derrick Jamison and Joe D'Ambrosio.
I called Collins after reading an opinion piece he wrote this week for the Columbus Dispatch. Collins is against the death penalty even though he carried out the law. He's watched 33 men die in the death chamber. He's also walked free men out of prison.
One man had served 10 years for a crime he didn't commit. It's hard to shake that joyful yet haunting scene in the prison lobby when an innocent man walks out of prison into his family's arms, a free man.
It frustrates Collins to read bloggers and hear comments from people saying they'd willingly do the executing.
Related coverage
Jan. 25: Retire Ohio's death penalty: Paul E. PfeiferJan. 26: Ohio switching to a new drug for lethal injectionsJan. 21: Ohio should abolish the death penalty: Regina BrettJan. 21: Lethal injection drug maker halting productionJan. 20: Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer wants to scrap the death penaltyNov. 29: Tennessee justices halt executions over 'death by suffocation while conscious'More about death penalty
"It's one thing to say that, it's another to do that," Collins said.
Executions take a toll on the staff. No one is assigned to the execution team; it's made up of volunteers.
"Often their own families don't know they're on that team," Collins said. "It's not an easy job to prepare somebody to be executed."
He's against capital punishment for many reasons:
The state doesn't always put the worst of the worst on death row. Sometimes the worst offenders get plea bargains and lighter sentences.
The death penalty doesn't make people safer. "Having a death sentence hasn't stopped people from killing and viciously harming people," Collins said. There is no statistical data to prove it deters crime, he added. In prison, those serving life terms are the least likely to violate prison rules, according to Collins.
Life without parole is cheaper than the death penalty, he said. The trial would cost less without the death penalty phase. There wouldn't be endless appeals, attorneys and judges to pay. There wouldn't be a special death row unit to maintain.
Life without parole could actually be easier on victim's families. They don't have to return to court for endless appeals and suffer the roller coaster ride of stays of executions.
Collins believes a life sentence without the possibility of parole should replace the death sentence. An inmate would never have the chance to leave prison.
Instead of bragging about being tough on crime or criticizing others for being soft on crime, Collins believes it's time we got smart on crime.
"Putting people in prison for the rest of their life without the possibility of parole is not soft on crime," he said. "That penalty is severe enough."
Anyone who thinks life in prison isn't that bad has never been in prison, Collins said.
"The greatest freedom we have is our freedom. You take that away, we tell you what to eat, what to wear, who can visit," he said. "I've never had anybody come to me and say, 'Let me in the door.'"

Both articles by Regina Brett
Cleveland Plain Dealer

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