Ohioans to Stop Executions: Report 2015

Ohioans to Stop Executions (OTSE) has brought out its second annual report about the current state of the death penalty in Ohio. Jeffrey Wogenstahl is mentioned twice in this. The first time is in Justice O’Neill’s comments about the death penalty as he dissented in the setting of an execution date for Jeff; the dissent concludes thus:

“The time to end this outdated form of punishment in Ohio has arrived. 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.”

Those familiar with the known prosecutor misconduct and evidence withheld in Jeff’s case might well ask the question, “Was this judge led to reconsider the whole death penalty system because of the doubts in a case like this?”

Jeff’s name also appears is in the list of scheduled executions. According to the report, the eleven executions planned for 2016 will be the most in one year since 1949. We also find that Hamilton County, where Jeff was convicted, has produced almost 6% of capital indictments since 1981; another OTSE resource shows that death sentences in this county are also disproportionately high:
“Hamilton County represents 6.95% of Ohio’s population but produces 19.06% of the state’s death sentences.”

The high level of death sentences in Hamilton County is reflected in the list of scheduled executions for 2016 and 2017: of the sixteen executions scheduled for those years, five are for men from this county.

The obvious question is: why are so many death sentences handed down in Hamilton County? Is the criminal justice system in this conservative county more punitive than elsewhere in Ohio?

Much of the OTSE report covers the report and fifty-six recommendations of the Joint Task Force to Review the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty. Some recommendations can be implemented pending rule changes at the Ohio Supreme Court; others require legislation. Three of the four prosecutors on this task Force (including the lead prosecutor for Jeff’s case in Hamilton County, Joseph T. Deters); wrote a dissent opposing twenty-five of the Task Force’s recommendations. They made it plain that they opposed recommendations that could result in the abolition of the death penalty. Yet the OTSE report also highlights a Lucas County prosecutor, Julia Bates, who describes the death penalty as ‘torture’:

“Death-penalty cases are ‘tortuous,’” she said, “for juries and judges charged with deciding whether someone should live or die, torturous for defense lawyers and prosecutors whose work really just begins when a defendant is convicted, torturous for victims’ families who must suffer through 15 to 20 years of appeals, and torturous for defendants sitting for years in solitary confinement on Death Row. It just seems there ought to be a better way.”

So our final question is: why do the three dissenting prosecutors have difficulty acknowledging and seeking to end this torture? Do they have a narrow focus on the fulfillment of legal rules that prevents them from seeing the whole system and its impact on all the human beings involved?

We trust that it will be the majority recommendations that hold sway with the Ohio Supreme Court and with Ohio’s legislators and leaders.

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