OHIO DEATH PENALTY Plea bargains allow hundreds of killers to spend life in prison
Supporters of the death penalty say it is not being used as it was intended.
COLUMBUS (AP) -- After four people were slaughtered in southern Ohio five years ago, including a 9-year-old boy who begged to live, prosecutors filed murder charges that carried the death penalty.
Days before the trial began for James Rick Curry, relatives of the victims decided they couldn't go through weeks of traumatic court proceedings. They asked the prosecutor to offer a plea bargain, and Curry is serving life with no chance of parole.
"I hope he lives to be 90, and I want him to stay in prison and just pay every day," said Eugene Chamberlain, whose daughter, Pam, was stabbed more than 20 times and her throat cut. "To me that's more punishment. If they execute you, it's over with."
While lawmakers intended Ohio's 1981 death penalty law to punish the worst of the worst with the ultimate penalty, prosecutors have regularly agreed to plea bargains that took execution off the table, according to a review of death penalty data by The Associated Press.
Of the 1,936 capital indictments filed statewide from 1981 through 2002, just over half ended in plea bargains, the study showed.
Of those, 131 people charged with killing multiple victims have escaped death row by pleading guilty. They include 25 people accused of killing three or more victims, according to the AP analysis, the first-ever study of the state system.
By contrast, the majority of people sentenced to death row during the same time were convicted of killing just one person. Of 274 death sentences, 196 involved single-victim killers.
The offer of plea bargains to multiple-victim murderers is "one of the things that makes the modern death penalty in this country unworkable," said Colin Garrett, a death penalty attorney for the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights.
A man executed last year, Lewis Williams, refused to discuss a plea bargain, even as 30 others charged in the same county the same year accepted pleas to escape the death sentence.
Cuyahoga County had 54 capital indictments in all in 1983. The plea agreements represented 55 percent of those cases. All but one of the eight men sentenced to die, including Williams, had killed one person. Two of those sentences were overturned, and federal courts are allowing new appeals for a third.
Avoiding a death sentence
Death sentences can be avoided at many stages of a capital case based on decisions made by a judge, the jury or the accused, as well as prosecutors, said Timothy Miller, criminal division chief for the county prosecutor's office.
Those decisions include a defendant's willingness to discuss plea bargains and take responsibility for a crime, neither of which Williams did, he said.
"If these 30 other defendants had not exhibited some level of accepting responsibility, they very likely -- if the jury had agreed that the death penalty was appropriate -- they'd be on death row also," Miller said.
Such cases are examples of how the death penalty is not being used the way the people who promote it and the people who want it intended, responded Terry Sherman, a veteran defense attorney in Columbus.
"It should be for the most heinous. It shouldn't be for the guy hopped up on drugs and he committed a robbery," he said.
Prosecutors say plea bargains, even for the worst crimes, must be considered individually.
"There's so many factors, I don't think you can paint with a broad brush and say, 'This is what should be done everywhere,' because each case is different," said Lynn Grimshaw, the former Scioto County prosecutor who agreed to a plea deal in the Curry case.
Yet even Grimshaw acknowledges, "If there's ever a guy that deserved death, he was it."
In Clark County, Prosecutor Stephen Schumaker oversaw the 1990 plea bargain offered to Harry Sanford for shooting three people, including a 5-year-old boy. Schumaker was an assistant prosecutor when a deal was offered to Thomas DeWitt, convicted of killing his 78-year-old grandmother and three others in 1983.
Relatives of Sanford's victims wanted a deal. In the DeWitt case, the county faced a legal battle over forcing a minister to testify about conversations he had with the suspect.
"If we hadn't pled that case, he may be on death row or he may be walking the streets a free man," Schumaker said.
Across the country
The use of plea bargains in capital cases gained national attention two years ago in Washington state, when Gary Ridgway pleaded guilty to 48 murders in exchange for information about the whereabouts of several bodies.
"The prosecutor's initial reaction was, 'No way, because if not Ridgway, who?'" said Dan Satterberg, chief-of-staff in the King County prosecutor's office.
"In the end we thought that the principle of seeking the truth and seeking answers for families who were hurting was a sufficient principle to set aside seeking the death penalty," Satterberg said. "Every case has to be tested on its own merits and the strength of its evidence. I don't believe it's a legal precedent in any way."
The AP analysis mirrored findings in other states.
In New York, plea bargains were offered in 26 of the 54 capital cases between 1995 and 2003, according to the state's Capital Defender Office.
In California, 47 percent of 2,866 capital cases were resolved without a trial -- almost all through plea bargains -- from 1977 through 1989, according to the most recent data compiled by the state public defender's office.
In federal death penalty cases, 95 out of 285 cases, or 33 percent, have ended with plea bargains since 1988, according to the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project.
The percentage dropped after former Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered federal prosecutors to limit the use of plea deals beginning in 2003, said Margaret O'Donnell, a Kentucky attorney involved with the project.
The use of plea bargains diminishes the effectiveness of the death penalty in important ways, said Welsh White, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and expert on capital punishment.
"It certainly adds to the arbitrariness, in that plea bargaining is going to depend so much on the resourcefulness of a defendant's attorney, not only getting a plea but persuading the defendant to accept it, that has nothing to do with the heinousness of the crime," he said.
In the Curry case, family members worried about the effect of a death penalty trial on Dwayne Spradlin, a man who is mentally challenged and survived the killings, said Roberta White, Spradlin's sister.
Early March 19, 2000, Curry broke into the home of his ex-girlfriend, Lana Spradlin, and stabbed her to death. When her son Daniel woke up, "He said, 'Please don't kill me,'" said White, but was stabbed anyway.
Curry also killed Lana Spradlin's sister, Pam, and Spradlin's mother, and threatened to kill Dwayne if he didn't leave the room.
"I wish I could see him put to death, and sit there and just smile at him, and say what I want to say to him, and him be put to death," White said. "But I also hope that we made the right decision in him going to jail and living every day."