Death penalty restriction recommended

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio should restrict the use of
capital punishment charges and create a state panel to approve them,
according to two of the 56 recommendations in the final report by a
committee that spent more than two years studying changes to the law.
The
committee proposes eliminating cases where an aggravated murder was
committed during a burglary, robbery or rape, requiring solid proof of a
defendant’s guilt such as DNA evidence, and banning the execution of
the mentally ill, according to a draft copy of the report obtained
Wednesday by The Associated Press.
The state panel would be run by
the Attorney General and would approve or disapprove of death penalty
charges proposed by a county prosecutor. That panel, similar to the
approach taken by federal prosecutors, is meant to reduce the role that
race plays in death penalty cases, according to a final draft of the
report, dated March 31. It would include former county prosecutors and
members of the Attorney General’s staff.
The death penalty review
committee, created in 2011 by Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen
O’Connor, convenes Thursday for what’s expected to be its final meeting.
O’Connor declined comment ahead of the meeting.
The committee
"believes that the recommendations made by this report will promote
fairness in capital cases for both the state and the defendant," the
report said.
Several of the committee’s recommendation would need
legislative approval, with support uncertain in what remains a death
penalty-friendly state.
Among the recommendations, the report proposes that Ohio:
—Pass
a law banning the use of the death penalty unless prosecutors have
biological or DNA evidence linking the defendant to the crime, a
videotaped, voluntary confession; or a video recording that
"conclusively links" the defendant to the killing.
—Ban death
penalty charges where prosecutors used testimony from jailhouse snitches
that was not independently verified at the time a jury is weighing the
sentence in a capital case.
—Pass a Racial Justice Act law allowing for the filing of racial disparity claims.
—Require that police interrogations of defendants in death penalty cases be considered involuntary unless
they were recorded.
—Use plain English in jury instructions for death penalty cases.
The
report also recommends requiring a condemned inmate’s interview with
the Ohio Parole Board ahead of a clemency hearing be a public record.
The
mental illness recommendation includes 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. The committee says such factors
rarely lead to death sentences but can increase racial disparities in
sentencing. Multiple murders, the murder of a child or a police office
would remain as death penalty elements.
A dissenting report is expected from committee members, including prosecutors, who oppose several of the
recommendations.
Ohioans to Stop Executions said it will push for passage of proposals with the most impact.
"If we have to have a death penalty, let’s make it a fairer one," said Kevin Werner, the
group’s executive director.
O’Connor
convened the committee in the fall of 2011 to look at ways to improve
Ohio’s death penalty law while making it clear that proposals to
eliminate the law were off-limits.
O’Connor, a Republican and a
former prosecutor, appointed judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys,
prison officials and death penalty experts to the committee. She has
said the committee’s goal was to produce a fair, impartial and balanced
analysis of the state’s 3-decade-old law.
Ohio enacted its current
death penalty in 1981 and it has largely survived any major
constitutional challenges. The state resumed executions in 1999 and has
put 53 men to death, with another execution scheduled for next month.
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Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus
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