Evolving Standards of Decency

There has been very good news on Ohio’s death row this month: one of the inmates, Rayshawn Johnson, has had his death sentence set aside. Even Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, who in 2006 dissented in a similar case, was swayed this time by evidence that showed the cumulative impact of many mitigating factors, including the abuse that Johnson suffered in childhood.

From infancy Johnson suffered appalling abuse: he was often put in a closet and given alcohol, prescription drugs and heroin. Justice Paul Pfeifer wrote that he was “doomed from the start due to his upbringing.” 

When he was young, and still very close to his childhood abuse – he killed a neighbor.

The Ohio Supreme Court’s decision, and especially Justice O’Connor’s apparent change of heart, may well reflect the same evolving standards of decency that has already made it illegal to execute juveniles and people with intellectual disability.

Hamilton prosecutor, Joe Deters, who also prosecuted Jeffrey Wogenstahl’s case, originally criticized the court’s ruling, saying that he had never had a death sentence reversed before, and complaining that one of the judges openly opposes the death penalty. However, he later accepted Johnson’s new sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

David Dow, a Texan death penalty defense lawyer and law professor, points out that 80% people on death rows throughout the country had a dysfunctional childhood (similar to Johnson’s). He advocates spending state money to support children who are at risk of abuse, from as early as their mothers’ pregnancies right up to any involvement they may have in the juvenile justice system. His proposal does not just aim to reverse the state’s failure to support vulnerable children: he suggests that such investment would actually prevent three out of every four crimes.

Dow maintains that in the long term this strategy would also save money:
“Some… people… might be old enough to remember the guy on the old oil filter commercial. He used to say, “Well, you can pay me now or you can pay me later.” What we’re doing in the death penalty system is we’re paying later. …for every 15,000 dollars that we spend intervening in the lives of economically and otherwise disadvantaged kids in those earlier chapters, we save 80,000 dollars in crime-related costs down the road.”

Such a proposal comes too late for Johnson and the victim of his crime, but Johnson’s resentencing at least acknowledges that childhood abuse was a significant mitigating factor in his case. Joe Deters might not like Johnson’s move from death row, but he should get used to it. Evolving standards of decency demand no less. Rayshawn Johnson should live.

 

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