Hamilton County: Vigilance Needed

Hamilton County, where Jeffrey Wogenstahl was tried, imposes the death penalty more frequently than the other counties in Ohio, and has more death row inmates than most of the over 3000 counties that make up the USA. 

Why is this?

The Cincinnati Enquirer suggests the phenomenon derives from the county’s culture, politics and history, but also from “a tough-on-crime mindset that took hold when Cincinnati was a frontier town.”
At that time executions were events that often drew crowds. The same public mentality prevails in the county now, with many of its citizens expecting that violence should be punished with more violence.

The continuing popularity of the death penalty within Hamilton County influences its politicians, who “tout their death penalty credentials”. Local prosecutors take their cue from the public, regularly seeking capital murder charges. Thus Hamilton County is one of only a very small number of outlier counties nationwide where the death penalty seems to be part of the local culture.

The resulting inequity has been highlighted in a report and voiced by Andrew Welsh-Huggins:*
“Your chances of going to death row depend on where you committed the crime.”

Unfair methods used by prosecutors can compound that intrinsic injustice. For instance, Jeff was hugely disadvantaged when his trial prosecutors committed wide-ranging misconduct, and denied him access to extensive, potentially exculpatory and impeaching evidence. Three other death-sentenced individuals† have been awarded new trials because members of the Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office suppressed exculpatory information. And recently a juror claimed that Hamilton County prosecutors were dishonest and unforthcoming during the sentencing phase of another death penalty trial.

Of course, once an unfairly secured death sentence has been carried out, it cannot be reversed. It is likely that some inmates killed by the state of Ohio were innocent.‡

With so many indicators of an unfair system and unfair practice, the citizens of Hamilton County must clearly be vigilant. Is their death penalty system fit for purpose? Or is it, in fact, injustice of the worst kind masquerading as “justice”?

*Andrew Welsh-Huggins is the author of the book, No Winners here Tonight: Race, Politics and Geography in One of the Country’s Busiest Death Penalty States (Ohio University Press, 2009)
†Derrick Jamison, and Michael Bies and Daryll Gumm. See State of Ohio v. Jeffrey A. Wogenstahl, 2016-0423, Appellant Jeffrey A. Wogenstahl’s Motion to Remand case to the Trial Court, filed October 7, 2016. Pages 9 – 14.
‡See statement by Terry Collins, former Director of the Ohio Department of Correction and Rehabilitation, at 15.00 of video clip:
“I don’t know for a fact that anybody that I ever witnessed be executed was not guilty. But statistical data would say that there’s a good probability of that.”
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