Vast Inequities

The findings of the report, “The Impact of Race, Gender, and Geography on Ohio Executions”, are damning. The report finds no evidence that the death penalty in Ohio deters homicide. On the contrary, the few counties that produced executions between 1976 and 2014 had homicide rates that were “dramatically” higher than in non-executing counties.

The geographic disparities are alarmingly wide. For instance, Hamilton County, where Jeffrey Wogenstahl was convicted and sentenced, is one of only 4 counties* responsible for over half of the state’s executions; conversely, 69 counties produced no executions at all. Hamilton County’s execution rate of 0.6 executions per 100 homicides is much higher than the rates in the other two most populous counties.**

The geographic anomalies echo a shocking national pattern highlighted by US Supreme Court Justice Breyer***, who refers to studies that cite the following as the causes of geographical disparity: the power of the local prosecutor, depleted defense resources, racial composition within the county and political pressures. North Carolina law professor, Robert J. Smith, is unequivocal about what has been happening nationally:
“When you start to look underneath the counties and ask, ‘Who is actually prosecuting these cases?’ you realize in most of the counties, it’s one or a limited number of prosecutors”.
Presumably the same is likely to apply to the state of Ohio.

It is not just different geographic outcomes that are inconsistent in the implementation of the Ohio death penalty: there are also differences of gender and race. A female victim is three times more likely than a male victim to attract a death sentence; and a white victim is nearly three times more likely than a black victim to attract a sentence of death.

The racial bias extends to convictions: African American and Latino people are more likely than white people to receive the death penalty in Ohio. Although homicides usually occur within racial groups, “[w]hites are likely to face the death penalty only for within-race crimes, and Blacks for within-race and cross-race crimes.”

The Rev. Jack Sullivan Jr., executive director of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, rightly denounces the racial discrepancies as showing that “white lives matter and black lives don’t”. 

The Ohio report does not indicate why racial disparity occurs, but a 2014 Sentencing Project report**** is pertinent. It discusses studies which find that white people significantly overestimate the proportion of crime committed by African Americans, and associate African American and Latino names with negative, rather than positive words. It states that white Americans working in criminal justice are not immune from such bias; their prejudice is transferred into many decisions that detrimentally impact people of color at every stage of the criminal justice system.

Whatever the reasons for the geographic, gender and racial disparities, the Ohio report is starkly clear in its conclusion:
“Vast inequities characterize the implementation of capital punishment in Ohio.”

This is reason enough for Ohio to reconsider. It is time for the death penalty to go.

* Just four out of Ohio’s 88 counties (Lucas, Summit, Cuyahoga and Hamilton) – or just 5% – are responsible for more than half of the state’s 53 executions.
** “Hamilton has the highest execution rate [of the three most populous counties, Cuyahoga, Franklin and Hamilton] at .60 executions per 100 homicides: this is more than double the execution rate in Cuyahoga, and nearly nine times the rate in Franklin County.”
***Glossip et al v. Gross et al, Breyer, J, dissenting, P.12 – 13
**** Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies


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