by Jessie Frank
Since Gov. DeWine’s January 25 order to halt executions while the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections searches for constitutional lethal injection drugs, the future of Ohio’s death penalty practice has hung in the balance. Accordingly, the death penalty has recently become more newsworthy as new developments surrounding it emerge in our state and country.
The Cincinnati Enquirer on Thursday entertained the question, “…is this the end of the death penalty?” in an article that recounted Ohio’s current legal and political temperature against a backdrop of death penalty facts and figures generally.
While IJPC is grateful that the discussion surrounding abolition is gaining momentum through such journalism, we feel it is important to ensure that the dialogue is fully informed through statistics that are holistic. The following address common statistics that, when viewed in isolation, can be misleading.
Race Plays a Role
Research shows that the two most reliable predictors of whether a death sentence is secured are geography and the victim’s race. While it is true, as the Enquirer reports, that Ohio has executed 37 white people and 19 black people, the implied conclusion that race plays a minimal role in the state’s practice of the death penalty does not follow—looking only at the defendants’ race obscures the fact that of the executed inmates’ 88 collective victims, 65% were white while 29% were black. This is almost completely inverse of Ohio’s homicide demographics: around 60% of homicide victims are black.
Few will be Eligible for Serious Mental Illness Exemptions
Many of Ohio’s racial and geographic disparities were taken up in a 2014 report published by Ohio’s Joint Task Force to Review the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty. While only a marginal amount of the 56 recommendations have been implemented, one that has been repeatedly taken up by the legislature is banning the death penalty for individuals with a serious mental illness. This legislation has been proposed by numerous members of numerous General Assemblies, and it has gained substantial traction and support in that time. Yet a fraction of opponents claim that too many individuals will qualify for relief under the bill, despite the fact that the ACLU estimates only 5-10% of individuals on death row would qualify.
Ohio is a Northern Anomaly
While it’s necessary to recognize that the death penalty is legal in 26 states, governors have imposed a ban in four states, and it has been abolished in 20 states, this geographical knowledge of the death penalty alone is insufficient. Although capital punishment is legal in a majority of states, the number of states that actually carry out executions is far less: only 12 states have carried out executions within the last five years. Of those 12 states, Ohio is the only northern state to have carried out more than 1 execution over that same period (SD and NE have only executed four people since 1976, one of which fell in 2018 in both states). Nationally, Ohio ranks eighth highest in executions countrywide.
Hamilton County Leads in Death Sentences and Executions
Hamilton County is not an insignificant player in handing out death sentences, either. Comparing each county’s sentencing rate reveals that of Ohio’s 144 death sentences, Hamilton County has sent more people to death row and is responsible for more executions than any county in Ohio since 1999. Fifty of Ohio’s 88 counties have never produced a death sentence, and only seven counties have produced over five total death sentences. Hamilton County has sentenced 24 people to death, followed by Cuyahoga County with 19 and trailed by Franklin County with 11. This means that around 7% of Ohio counties are responsible for over half the state’s total death sentences.
Understanding each of the varying factors that impacts the way in which Ohio carries out the death penalty is important because, as the American Bar Association explains “problems in one area can undermine sound procedures in others.” Ensuring that we have comprehensive, well-rounded facts informing our understanding of Ohio’s use of the death penalty will enable our conversations to be more productive and our activism more effective.