COLUMBUS, Ohio (WJW) — After nearly a decade of trying to get the Death Penalty abolished here in Ohio, State Senator Nickie Antonio (Lakewood-D) is hoping this time will be different.
Antonio is also being joined by State Senator Peggy Lehner (Kettering-R) as a joint sponsor on the bill, and announced they have built a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers.
Timing may be in their favor, as the inability to secure the necessary drugs to carry out executions is making capital punishment less attractive in some eyes.
At a news conference Wednesday morning, State Senator Kristina Roegner (Hudson-R), a staunch Pro-Life conservative, opened up and explained why she was supporting Antonio’s bill to end the capital punishment in Ohio.
She explained that when she came to the Statehouse she was pro-death penalty, but since then her heart has changed due in large part to her faith. Roegner spoke of a tale from the bible about the woman taken in adultery in which the Pharisees ask Jesus what should be done to a women caught in the act of adultery. The passage continues with the response that he who is without sin should cast the first stone.
Man standing in judgement over others is no new concept and in a society of laws it is a vital component of order. How far to take that judgement and under what circumstances, as you have just read, have been debated for a long time.
More recently and closer to home, Ohio’s Governor can be in an important and sometimes difficult role when it comes time to execute someone condemned to die, at least that is how Governor Ted Strickland saw it.
Wednesday he joined Antonio and Roegner for the news conference and shared his regret for not pushing to abolish the death penalty when he had a position of power. Strickland says he doesn’t care for the death penalty because it is final.
“You can’t correct a mistake, and I am convinced that if we continue to impose this penalty we will at some point; at some place; at some time; take the life of an innocent person,” said Strickland. “No system is perfect. Our criminal justice system is not perfect and that means that we should never impose this ultimate penalty upon one of our fellow human beings.”
According to the Ohio Justice & Policy Center, using data gathered by Ohioans to Stop Executions and the Death Penalty Information Center, for every 6 people executed since 1981 one person has been exonerated.
One of those people was Joe D’Ambrosio. He spent 20 years on death row before being exonerated.
They also say since 1981, when Ohio reinstated the death penalty, 333 death sentences have been handed down. Of those, 40% were never executed. Instead, they either died of natural causes, have their sentences commuted, vacated, or reversed. There are currently 143 prisoners on death row.
Getting them there carries a heavy cost financially and emotionally. Kevin Werner, the policy director for the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, shared a comparison of two cases out of Summit County.
Both cases were aggravated murders, but only one was pursued as a capital crime carrying a potential death penalty. When it was all said and done, the capital punishment case cost taxpayers $267,875 while the non-capital punishment case only cost $19,365.
But here’s the thing, both cases resulted in the same sentence; the jury in the capital punishment case gave the defendant life without the possibility of parole.
That would have been just the starting point for taxpayer money spent on a death row inmate had they been convicted. Most times, capital punishment cases are brought against a defendant too poor to afford their own representation. So taxpayer dollars are spent paying for their defense and the prosecution, and the court administration costs, and the ongoing costs associated with the potentially 30 years of appeals. Then there is the cost to incarcerate them.
Those taxpayer costs are at the local and state level. Werner estimates the cost to incarcerate someone for life without parole, from the age of 18, is about $1 million. He says, the cost to put that same 18-year-old on death row is closer to $3 million.
Since 1981, 3,200 have been indicted on capital crime charges in Ohio. Again, 333 people have been convicted and of those 56 have been executed and 9 have been exonerated.
Setting aside the financial cost, some victim’s families say they pay even more than the unaffected taxpayer. Not only are their tax dollars being used, but there is also a financial cost to them to be at every hearing, to stay on top of what the attorneys for the defendant or convicted are doing.
And then there is the emotional cost that victim’s families pay every single time one of those hearings are held. Some, like Jonathan Mann, say it just forces them to re-live the pain and trauma of losing their loved one again, and again. Sometimes this stretches on for 30 years.
A sentence of life without the possibility of parole limits the kinds and scope of appeals that can be sought to far fewer than those available to those sentenced to die.
Mann is just starting this long journey. His father and his father’s girlfriend were murdered in 2017 in Parma Heights. Thomas Knuff was convicted and sentenced to die as a result.
According to Mann, he struggled emotionally, and the entire process has divided the family. “There’s a shortlist of things as human beings that we think about in what irrevocably changes us, and this is one of them,” said Mann. “I operated as an emotional zombie while dually being consumed by hate; while trying to figure out how to manage my life, which was near impossible.”
He also says the cost in terms of lost time is perhaps the worst part of capital punishment.
Mann supports ending the death penalty, but make no mistake he wants Knuff to pay for his crimes for the rest of his life with no possibility of parole. He says, “It’s debilitating to me because every day I have to deal with the horror and the trauma that my father was brutally murdered along with his girlfriend, and I have to re-live it every single time we go through these proceedings for the next 30 year. That’s not justice.”
Speaking of justice, the Ohio Senate President Larry Obhof (Medina-R) says that is what capital punishment provides. When asked if the cost of the death penalty is worth its use in Ohio, he responded, “I don’t think that cost should drive whether we get justice for victims or not. I think that each member of the legislature needs to decide for himself or herself what they think the right public policy is and then let that be the deciding factor.”
Mann disagrees with Obhof’s position on cost, and while he has no problem with his taxpayer dollars going toward helping defendants get a fair trial, he says, “I’m not fine with wasting taxpayer’s money to provide what is false justice in the name of my father.”
Antonio says the bill will have a companion piece of legislation introduced in the Ohio House of Representatives, and that she has been assured the Senate bill will get hearings. One of the bills will have to move swiftly through the legislature to make it to the Governor’s desk before the end of the year when all bills that have not done so will die, and potentially be born again to start the process over next General Assembly.