Future is unclear for report on Ohio death penalty

ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS AP Legal Affairs Writer Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Ohio's capital punishment law would look much different if all recommendations from a committee studying it were put in place, death penalty supporters and opponents said Thursday while disagreeing with the proposals' ultimate impact.

The committee convened in 2011 by Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor met Thursday to finalize its last report and 56 proposed changes.

All the recommendations could be put in place and capital punishment would remain in Ohio, but in a vastly reduced form, state Public Defender Timothy Young said.

"Ohio would still have capital punishment but I think it would be limited to the worst of the worst cases, which has always been the stated goal of the death penalty in the United States," Young said, a supporter of many of the proposals.

He said many of the proposals are already in laws or rules in other states with the death penalty.

A veteran prosecutor disagreed, saying the recommendations would effectively end capital punishment in Ohio if implemented.

Such mandates as requiring DNA evidence or a videotaped confession for death penalty sentences would make it impossible to convict even the worst criminals, said Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien, a member of the committee and a critic of many of its findings.

"Many of the recommendations are so onerous that you could take Timothy McVeigh, and if he didn't give a videotaped confession, and you didn't have DNA, that you couldn't execute Timothy McVeigh," said O'Brien, a Republican and prosecutor since 1996.

McVeigh was executed in 2001 for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people and wounded hundreds.

O'Brien also criticized the recommendation of a state death penalty panel run by the attorney general that would approve or disapprove of capital charges sought by county prosecutors. He said those decisions should left up to locally elected prosecutors.

A dissenting report will be submitted next week.

Some of the recommendations, such as the DNA requirement or the state charging panel, would need lawmakers' support. Such backing is questionable in what is still a death penalty-friendly state.

Other recommendations, including training for any lawyer involved in a death penalty case, could be approved as a Supreme Court rule.

Retired appeals court judge James Brogan, the chairman of the committee, said he was hopeful all the proposals would be implemented. He acknowledged the strength of the prosecutors' lobby, likely to oppose many recommendations. He said legislators need to put themselves in the shoes of someone who might be wrongly convicted.

"We should narrow the category, we should improve the procedures, and the law that applies, and hopefully the Legislature will give it a careful examination," Brogan said.

Among other proposals:

--Ban death penalty charges in cases where prosecutors used testimony from jailhouse snitches that was not independently verified by the time jurors weigh the sentence.

--Pass a law allowing for the filing of racial disparity claims.

--Ban the execution of defendants who were mentally ill at the time of the crime or at the time of a scheduled execution.

The report also recommends eliminating kidnapping, rape, aggravated arson, aggravated robbery and aggravated burglary as elements of a crime that could lead to a death penalty charge.

O'Connor convened the panel of defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges and death penalty experts to review the state's three-decade-old now, while making clear that abolition of capital punishment was off the table.

She said the goal was to produce a fair, impartial and balanced analysis of the 1981 law.

Ohio resumed executions in 1999 and has put 53 men to death by injection, with another execution scheduled next month.

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Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.