Death Penalty Task Force Releases Final Report

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A panel of 22 judges, lawyers, and policymakers that studied the death penalty in Ohio for more than two years today released its final report and recommendations designed to improve the system.

The report will now be reviewed by the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court and by the president of the Ohio State Bar Association and is being made available to the members of the Ohio General Assembly and interested parties. A copy of the report can be downloaded online.

The Joint Task Force to Review the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty was appointed by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and former Ohio State Bar Association President Carol Seubert Marx in September 2011 to review a 2007 report by the American Bar Association that had identified systemic problems with the administration of the death penalty in Ohio.

The appropriateness of the death penalty as a punishment in Ohio was never considered by the Joint Task Force.

“Based upon its review the Joint Task Force submits recommendations that, if implemented, will improve the administration of capital punishment in Ohio,” the task force chair, Judge James A. Brogan, wrote in a letter presenting the report to the Chief Justice and the OSBA president for consideration.

Among the report’s 56 recommendations:

-Require that custodial interrogations, as defined by Miranda v. Arizona, must be recorded and, if not recorded, then the statements made during the interrogation should be presumed “involuntary.”

-Enact legislation to require all crime labs in Ohio be certified by a recognized agency as defined by the Ohio General Assembly.

-Amend the law to exclude from eligibility for the death penalty defendants who suffer from “serious mental illness” at the time of execution.

-Enact legislation that maintains that a death sentence cannot be considered or imposed unless the state has either: 1) biological evidence or DNA evidence that links the defendant to the act of murder; 2) a videotaped, voluntary interrogation and confession of the defendant to the murder; 3) a video recording that conclusively links the defendant to the murder; or 4) other like factors as determined by the General Assembly.

-Amend Rule 20 of the Rules of Superintendence for Ohio Courts to increase qualifications for lawyers representing defendants facing the death penalty

-Remove from the statutes the following death penalty specification offenses: Kidnapping, Rape, Aggravated Arson, Aggravated Robbery, and Aggravated Burglary.

-Create a death penalty charging committee at the Ohio Attorney General’s Office to be made up of former county prosecutors, appointed by the Governor, and members of the Ohio Attorney General’s staff. County prosecutors would submit cases they want to charge with death as a potential punishment. The Attorney General’s office would approve or disapprove of the charges paying particular attention to the race of the victim(s) and defendant(s).

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor thanked the task force members for their hundreds of hours of work on the project and indicated that she will review the report and offer her views on the specific recommendations at a later date.

“Thoughtful Ohioans of good will may disagree on whether we should have the death penalty, but no one can disagree that as long as Ohio does have a death penalty we should have the fairest and most reliable system possible. I will study this report very closely, and I know that the governor and the members of the General Assembly will also. I want to thank Judge Brogan and every member of the committee for their service in the cause of justice. The fact that this report was more than two years in the making is a reflection on its thoroughness and on the time and attention devoted by the task force members.”

OSBA President Jonathan Hollingsworth said: “As lawyers, we are keenly aware that the death penalty is the ultimate sentence.  Consequently, we have an obligation to insure that the death penalty is administered fairly, without bias, and without disparate impact.  Hopefully, recommendations resulting from the work of the task force will help secure that goal. Chief Justice O’Connor and I sincerely appreciate the work of the task force members. We also appreciate that there is much work still to be done. Members of the task force had a healthy debate on the matter.  Our next step is to undertake a thorough review of the findings and recommendations. We will be convening some of our committees and others with expertise in the area of criminal justice for that review.”

A small minority of committee members issued their own dissenting report, which was also released today and is available online.