Commentary

06.22.15

Paying the Price For Race: Death Penalty Priorities in Ohio

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Execution Chamber

Following the botched execution of Dennis McGuire in Ohio early last year and other similar bungled executions across the country, death penalty opponents have been calling for reform.

In a recent article, former Governor Bob Taft (R) argued that the escalating price tag of the death penalty should warrant reconsideration of its use in Ohio. The impact of the death penalty on the state’s budget is indeed an issue—the Cincinnati Enquirer estimated in 2010 that death row prisoners could cost taxpayers up to $1 million.

It’s unfortunate, however, that some see financial costs as the only issue when considering the future of capital punishment. They neglect the racial disparity of the death penalty in Ohio.

A Constant Problem

Racial injustice in death penalty cases has been documented in the state since the 1990s. The Ohio Commission on Racial Justice determined that given the strength of the testimony presented, it was impossible to escape the conclusion that components of the criminal justice system were “out to get” minorities.

According to Ohioans To Stop Executions, the race of the defendant has a major effect on cases where the death sentence may be imposed. Defendants charged with killing a white victim are two times more likely to receive a death sentence than those charged with killing a black victim.

There are currently 141 prisoners on death row; 53 percent of them are people of color. The American Bar Association report on capital punishment in Ohio in 2007 determined that the state neither studied the issue of racial bias in death sentences nor implemented reforms to eliminate racial bias in death sentencing.

Reopening the Discussion

The Joint Task Force on Ohio’s Death Penalty released its report just over a year ago, stipulating a number of recommendations on combatting racial bias. Among them:

  • Mandating that an attorney must seek the recusal of any judge where a reasonable basis for concluding that the judge’s decision-making could be affected by racially discriminatory factors.
  • Creating a death penalty charging committee. Comprised of county prosecutors, this committee would submit cases with  death as a potential punishment to the Attorney General’s office, which would approve or disapprove of charges, paying particular attention to the race of the victim and defendant.

Read  the Ohio Supreme Court task force’s full report on the death penalty in Ohio.

State Senator Charleta Tavares (D) recently proposed Senate Bill 67, “The Racial Justice Act,” to implement the task force’s recommendations. While the bill does not abolish the death penalty in Ohio, it’s an important step in addressing racial bias in death penalty cases.

With the recent stay on executions until 2016, there’s an opportunity for the state to reform fairness in capital punishment. People of color in our criminal justice system face inequity at many different points. In Ohio, reconsideration on the use of capital punishment also should focus on equality and justice, as well as the right to life, as many conservatives noted in Nebraska two weeks ago.

Governor John Kasich (R) in a interview last month spoke about the use of the death penalty as justice for victims and their families. What about tackling the inherent injustice of racial bias in death penalty cases?

As high as the economic costs can be, they can’t amount to the price of a life.

Mike Denis is an intern with The ACLU of Ohio.

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