Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Ohio’s Not-Exactly-Arbitrary Death Penalty

By Andrew Grant-Thomas, Deputy Director at the Kirwan Institute

This past Saturday the Kirwan Institute hosted a panel called “Perspectives on Ohio’s Death Penalty” at the Moritz College of Law at OSU.

Here are some takeaways.

Don’t kill a white person, don’t kill a woman, and definitely don’t kill a white woman if you want to escape the death penalty.

Stay away from the South, especially Texas, and stick to the stretch of states extending from Michigan west to North Dakota – no death penalty in those states.

In Ohio, if you’re indicted on a capital charge in Hamilton County, you’re five times more likely to end up on death row than if you’re indicted in Cuyahoga County.

And if you find yourself before a 3-judge panel at the 6th circuit court of appeals, the main review panel for death sentences in Ohio, pray that you draw at least two judges appointed by a Democrat.

Panels controlled by Republican presidential appointees uphold death penalty convictions three-quarters of the time. Panels controlled by Democratic appointees REVERSE the sentence three-quarters of the time. That means that half the time life or death rides, literally, on the luck of the draw.

Moreover, the weight of the evidence says that the death penalty has little deterrence value, if any. And many victims’ families reject the argument we often make on their behalf that the death penalty helps with closure.

So with all that, why, according to a recent Ohio Poll, do only one in four Ohioans want to abolish the death penalty, less than want to legalize marijuana (37%) or same-sex marriage (39%)?

Here are my guesses.

For one, the pollsters asked a bad question. If the choice is simply between having the death penalty or not, Americans want it. But if the choice is between the death penalty and life without parole – which IS an option in Ohio – support for the death penalty goes way down.

Second, even some people who agree that the death penalty should only be used rarely want to preserve it for especially hideous crimes. However, in practice, the link between the ugliness of the crime and the use of capital punishment is weak.

I suspect that the two biggest reasons we generally support the death penalty are related: we don’t know the facts very well and we don’t really care in any case. As one panelist said on Saturday, few of us expect to be in a position to be victimized by the system’s unfairness.

I wonder how many of the 180 inmates on Ohio’s death row right now once felt the same way.

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