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Committee debates abolishing death penalty

12 Mahoning Valley inmates on Ohio’s death row

The Ohio Senate Judiciary Committee held its first hearing Tuesday on legislation recently introduced with the goal of abolishing Ohio’s death penalty in favor of life in prison without parole.

The Mahoning Valley has 12 inmates on Ohio’s death row, according to records. Since the late 1980s, five inmates from the Valley have been executed; another four from the Valley have died on death row; and five have had their cases removed from death row based on court or executive action.

Sen. Nickie Antonio, a Democrat from Lakewood, led off by saying this proposal has received “the most bipartisan support yet” of multiple, earlier efforts to abolish the death penalty with more than one-third of Ohio’s senators signing on as sponsors.

“It is time for the state of Ohio to take the compassionate, pragmatic and economically prudent step to abolish the death penalty, which has been found to be expensive, impractical, unjust, inhumane and erroneous. Today, 23 states and the District of Columbia have legislatively abolished the death penalty,” Antonio said.

As for the “unjust” allegation, she argued that the death penalty “is not pursued with equity and has been described by former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeiffer as a death lottery. He said depending on where you happen to commit the crime and the attitude of the prosecutor, it becomes like a lottery.”

As referenced March 28 in a news release when Antonio and the other co-sponsors announced the legislation, she again on Tuesday mentioned the 2020 Death Penalty Information Center’s report, saying it “detailed racial bias with regard to the death penalty.”

Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) and Hamilton County (Cincinnati) are among the top 2 percent of the counties for the majority of inmates on death row. “Over half of Ohio’s 134 death row inmates are black, while black people make up only 13 percent of Ohio’s population,” she said.

Antonio said the study indicates that a person in Hamilton County is “three to five times more likely to receive a death sentence if the victim is white.”

Sen. Matt Dolan, a Republican from Chagrin Falls, was the first senator to question Antonio and co-sponsor Steve Huffman, a Republican from near Dayton, on the bill.

He wanted to know whether there is data showing whether capital punishment is a deterrent to crime.

“There have been studies that have shown that (the death penalty) has not been proven to be a deterrent to violent crime,” she answered, without citing any specific source.

Dolan also asked a question that started out as a statement, saying “the very process of capital punishment allows for the very in-depth appeals that demonstrate whether someone is innocent or not.” He added, “If a person is sentenced to life without parole, the appeals system is nowhere near as intrusive as (the one for) capital punishment.

“So we could have somebody sitting with no hope of ever proving their innocence. So the system itself kind of helps find the flaws.”

Antonio said some people have been exonerated of capital murder, decades after their conviction.

Dolan said her response did not address the issue he was raising.

She then discussed the concept of the death penalty being used as a “bargaining chip,” saying prosecutors sometimes offer to remove the death penalty “as leverage to get someone to plead to a lesser crime or to a lesser sentence.”

In response to a question from Sen. Nickie Reynolds, a Republican from Columbus, Huffman said he does not think the death penalty deters someone from committing a murder. He said he thinks society will be equally safe or unsafe whether Ohio has the death penalty or not.

Antonio said she and Huffman met last year with human rights counselors from countries such as France, Germany and the Netherlands who said “the abolition of capital punishment in Ohio would lead to an interest in engagement with more international businesses and commerce due to the amount of international corporations that want to do business with abolition states.”

Huffman said the cost per death penalty inmate is about three times that of a person spending life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Huffman said: “I believe life at all stages is sacred and truly a person’s greatest gift from God. As both medical director and a man of unwavering faith, I believe this gift of life should be preserved and defended at all costs.”

He said the United States is among less than 30 percent of the countries around the world with a death penalty. “We are the only Western nation and member of NATO that still uses the death penalty.”

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