Many of the recommendations of the Ohio Supreme Court Death Penalty Task Force could blow up before the final report is in the hands of state lawmakers.
The 22-member panel met this week to wrap up action on 56 recommendations, including banning execution of the mentally ill, setting up a statewide capital litigation fund, requiring DNA or videotape evidence for a murder conviction, and reserving capital punishment for the “worst of the worst” crimes.
At the same time, a minority report is being drafted by some task force members, including Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, that will challenge and oppose many of the major recommendations.
O’Brien said what the full task force is recommending “functionally accomplishes a moratorium...that would make it impossible to impose the death penalty in Ohio.”
“With these rules, you couldn’t execute Timothy McVeigh,” O’Brien said, referring to the Oklahoma City bomber who was prosecuted and executed by the federal government.
Prosecutors object to many of the recommendations, but were out-voted by other members of the task force, which was appointed by Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor and the Ohio State Bar Association and includes judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, the Ohio public defender, state lawmakers and law professors.
O’Brien predicted that many of the recommendations that require legislative action would be “ dead on arrival” at the General Assembly. He said prosecutors are dissatisfied with a recommendation that would empower the attorney general’s office, and not prosecutors in the 88 counties, to determine when the death penalty can be sought in murder cases. They also differ with the recommendation on mental illness because it includes no definition of “seriously mentally illness.”
State Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, said it’s possible some issues in the minority report might be actually be supported by a majority of the 22 members of the task force.
Ohio Public Defender Tim Young said that not all the 56 recommendations are likely to be approved and “unfortunately some will be left on the table.”
He defended the changes, adding, “Almost every single recommendation is a law or a rule on the books in some other state” and yet executions still occur.
“The public always suffers when justice isn’t being done,” Young said of his concerns about criticisms of the report.
The draft report says the panel "was specifically instructed not to review whether Ohio should or should not have the death penalty." But everything else was fair game, as shown in the 56 proposed recommendations in the 71-page report.
Some of the proposed changes would have to be approved by the General Assembly and signed into law by the governor. Others would require changing administrative rules and procedures, while some would need to be signed off on by accrediting agencies.
One major proposal would mean murderers in Ohio could face the death penalty only if the prosecution has DNA or biological evidence, a videotaped confession or another video recording that "conclusively links the defendant to the murder."
Other draft recommendations include eliminating death-penalty convictions based on information from jailhouse snitches, relying on driver's licenses as well as registered-voter lists for a jury pool, mandating more education and experience for lawyers in capital cases, requiring judges to use "plain English" instead of legalese in jury instructions and recording interrogations of defendants in murder cases.
"The Joint Task Force believes that the recommendations made by this report will promote fairness in capital cases for both the state and the defendant, " the draft document says.
By Alan Johnson - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
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