Report shows decline in Ohio capital punishment cases

138 men and one woman are currently on death row.
TNS Regional News
Apr 8, 2014

 

Ohio prosecutors filed the fewest capital indictments last year — 21 cases — since the death penalty was reinstated in 1981, according to an annual report on capital crimes in the state.

“We use (a capital indictment) hesitantly, but if the facts and the circumstances justify death, we’ll use it,” Clark County Prosecutor Andrew Wilson said. “There is a lot of deliberation and considerations put into a case before that decision is made.”

No capital indictments were handed down last year in the Clark County Common Pleas Court, the report says.

The Ohio Attorney General’s Office Capital Crimes Annual Report says 138 men and one woman are currently on death row, including five from Clark County. None of the five have been given an execution date.

The last death penalty sentencing in Clark County was in 2011. Jason Dean was convicted in a re-trial for the death of Springfield counselor Titus Arnold while he was walking home from his shift at a youth center. Dean was first sentenced to death for the murder in 2006.

For an aggravated murder to be a capital crime, the killing has to have particular elements. Some are clear-cut, such as the defendant has a prior murder conviction or the victim was a police officer. But some specifications are not as simple, such as concluding that a defendant murdered someone while committing another felony, like rape or aggravated robbery. It comes down to the decision of a prosecutor whether to seek the death penalty in such instances.

In the Ohioans To Stop Executions report, written by the statewide anti-death organization in response to the Attorney General’s yearly review, the group admits that indictments are down, but said disparities in capital cases remain. The group said reform in Ohio’s laws is necessary and highlights support for execution repeal among noted Ohio legal experts, including former and present Ohio Supreme Court justices.

“The time to end this outdated form of punishment has arrived,” wrote Ohio Supreme Court Justice William O’Neill in a January 2013 dissent of a death row inmate’s execution date setting. O’Neill said he believes capital punishment violates the U.S. Constitution and Ohio Constitution because it is cruel and unusual punishment.

“While I recognize that capital punishment is the law of the land, I cannot participate in what I consider to be a violation of the Constitution I have sworn to uphold,” he said.

Across the state, the number of capital indictments has dropped in recent years due to the fact that prosecutors have more options for sentencing defendants involved in aggravated murder cases. In 2005, Ohio sentencing laws changed, allowing prosecutors to ask that aggravated murder convictions to have a maximum penalty of life in prison without parole, or life in prison with parole eligibility after 25 or 30 years. Under the old law, the only way to ensure a defendant was behind bars for more than 20 years was to try the person in a capital case.

“In some cases, life without parole may be an appropriate option and at least we have that option now,” Wilson said.

Capital punishment has been a part of the Ohio legal system since the early 1800s, and the state’s execution procedures have been contested several times. Ohio’s laws were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972 and 1978. But revisions were made to the Ohio Revised Code in 1974 and 1981 to comply with the court’s rulings, and the latter revisions — with some modifications — are what stand in the current law.

With recent shortages of lethal injection drugs on the market, in Oct. 2013, the state had to change it’s procedure to a mixture of two intravenous drugs to kill the condemned.

After the new lethal combination of drugs was used in January to execute Dennis McGuire, who admitted to raping and killing a pregnant Preble County woman in 1989, the execution date of one death row inmate was pushed back — due to an investigation into “untested and inhumane capital punishment,” according to statements from McGuire’s attorney. McGuire’s family has since filed a lawsuit against the state over his execution method.

Juan Kinley, Kerry Perez, William Sapp, Timothy Coleman and Dean all sit on death row without scheduled execution dates. Each convicted man’s case is in the middle of the numerous appeals to overturn their capital punishment sentences.

Kinley was convicted of murdering his former girlfriend, 31-year-old Thelma Miller, and her 12-year-old son, David, in 1989 by repeatedly beating the victims with a machete. Perez shot 43-year-old Ronald Johnson during an attempted robbery at the Do Drop Inn Bar in 2003. Sapp raped Martha Leach, 11 and Phree Morrow, 12, in downtown Springfield and then beat the two to death in 1992, and was connected to their deaths by DNA testing in 1996 and indicted for the crimes in 1997.

Coleman was convicted of the 1996 aggravated murder of Melinda Stevens, 33, in an alleyway behind Riddles’ Ribs in Springfield. Stevens was an informant for the Springfield Police Division and Coleman shot her to prevent her from testifying against him in court.

Kinley, Perez, Sapp and Coleman are involved in a federal lawsuit filed against the state, contesting Ohio’s lethal-injection protocol. The case was filed in 2011 by 91 inmates on death row awaiting their executions, who argue Ohio’s execution procedures violate their 8th Amendment rights protecting them against cruel or unusual punishment.

Gov. John Kasich has not commented about McGuire’s death in relationship to the pending federal case of the inmates against the state.

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By Allison Wichie Springfield News-Sun, Ohio (MCT)

©2014 Springfield News-Sun, Ohio

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