Prosecutors criticize Ohio death penalty review

ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS AP Legal Affairs Writer Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- A committee that spent more than two years studying Ohio's capital punishment law made several recommendations that are anti-death penalty, are one-sided and have a pro-defense bias, prosecutors said Tuesday in a dissenting report.

Many recommendations would tie the death-penalty system in knots, while others, such as those dealing with race, aren't backed up by facts, according to the report.

One recommendation, for example, would require judges to report anyone in a death penalty case who "acted on the basis of race."

"Because there has been no demonstration of racism playing a part in capital prosecutions, this is akin to a solution searching for a problem," the dissenting report said. "However, as with a good many of the proposals from the task force, it appears to be intended to end the death penalty rather than to make it fairer."

One proposal would remove crimes such as rape, robbery, burglary or kidnapping from factors that could elevate a murder to a death penalty case.

Another proposal would require that interrogations in death penalty cases be recorded or be considered involuntary. Another would establish a state-level panel with final say on whether death penalty charges could be brought.

Other proposals call for a racial justice law allowing for complaints over race's role in a case and banning the execution of people with a serious mental illness.

The mental illness proposal "would prohibit the execution of murderers who fully understand the crimes they committed," the prosecutors said, noting Ohio law already offers protections against putting the young and people with mental disabilities to death.

"The proposal creates a field day for unnecessary delay and costly expenditures for experts," the report said.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien and others were also upset by a proposal requiring strict evidence for a death sentence such as DNA or a videotaped confession. They also wanted a recommendation to change Ohio law to allow victim impact testimony at sentencing, an idea rejected by the committee.

In several instances, the committee did not follow a mandate by Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor of the state Supreme Court that put abolition of the death penalty off the table, the report said.

O'Connor convened the committee in 2011 to produce a fair, impartial and balanced analysis of Ohio's three-decades-old death penalty law. The task force included defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges and academics.

The committee recommendations were meant to correct mistakes, not end the death penalty, said retired appeals court Judge James Brogan, the committee chairman.

"Our goal is to deal with the system as we have it and minimize the possibility of wrongful convictions and unfair convictions," Brogan said Tuesday.

O'Connor has said divisions among committee members were to be expected.

The fate of the recommendations is unclear. Many changes would require new laws, an uncertainty in what is still a death penalty-friendly state. Some could be enacted as new court rules by the Supreme Court.

___

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