UC Law Students Release Ohio Death Penalty Study

A group of University of Cincinnati law students are asking Ohio’s governor to place a moratorium on executions until a commission can be impaneled to insure fairness and accuracy in the state’s death penalty system.

The students from the UC College of Law’s Urban Justice Institute made their request in conjunction with release Friday of a study that says 63 percent of Ohio’s current death row inmates have aspects in their case histories that merit review.

The students emphasized they are not calling for a mass commutation, as happened in Illinois earlier this month, or a permanent suspension of the death penalty. “We’re not saying at all that the death penalty should be eliminated in Ohio,” said UC third-year law student Dan Dodd, one of the group’s leaders. In fact, he added, the majority of the group favors the death penalty.

Through the Urban Justice Institute, a group of 14 law students began work at the start of last summer to review the cases of 173 prisoners currently on Ohio’s death row. They compared those histories to a set of common factors that previous studies show correlate strongly to a likelihood of convictions of innocent people and an arbitrariness in application of the death penalty that does not suggest equal protection of the law.

The studies included recommendations from Illinois’ “Report of the Governor’s Commission on Capital Punishment,” a blue-ribbon, bipartisan group set up several years ago when it became apparent that that state had significant difficulties in its death penalty system.

“Using the Illinois’ commission’s recommendations as a gauge, if Ohio reserves the death penalty for only the most extreme cases, more than half of Ohio’s death row population would not be eligible for the death penalty,” said group member Peder Nestingen.

At the heart of those recommendations were nine factors which were used to evaluate the status of Ohio’s death row prisoners:

  • Murder of a police officer or firefighter
  • Murder within a correctional institution
  • Multiple murders
  • Murders that involve torture
  • Murder of a witness in a criminal case
  • Mental retardation
  • Trial testimony of a jailhouse informant
  • Trial testimony of a single eyewitness
  • Trial testimony of an accomplice in the crime

The first five factors are those judged most heinous by the Illinois commission and therefore most deserving of the death penalty. Mental retardation became a moot factor earlier this year following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that execution of the mentally retarded is no longer allowed. The final three factors on the list are trial aspects that most often are prone to reversible error.

“We picked these eligibility factors because these are factors that went to the heart of the case,” said Dodd.

UC law student Kellie Brennan

UC law student Kellie Brennan

Earlier Friday, the students submitted a copy of their study along with a letter containing their requests to Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, according to group member Kellie Brennan. In part, the letter urges Taft to use his “good governance to insure not one innocent person dies in Ohio. When innocent people sit on death row, murderers run free in our Great State.”

UC law student Mike Greenwell also helped head up the committee which presented the report.

The study has been accepted for publication in the University of Cincinnati Law Review and will be part of an upcoming book to be published by Ohio University.

A webcast of the students’ presentation of their study is also available at: http://www.law.uc.edu/current/dpenalty030117/index.html

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