Change of Heart

Conservative former justice officials seek to reform Ohio’s death penalty

click to enlarge Former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro and his wife Nancy are advocates for abolishing the state’s death penalty
Former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro and his wife Nancy are advocates for abolishing the state’s death penalty

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ozens of times during his 30 years of service with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitations and Corrections, Terry Collins made the 45-minute drive from his home in Chillicothe to the prison at Lucasville to witness the state put a prisoner to death. Collins, who retired as director of the ODRC in 2010, says the drive never got easier. 

Today, the man who oversaw 33 executions is calling for deep changes to the way Ohio institutes capital punishment, an issue most often taken up by progressives. Collins says he’s deeply conservative and strongly believes in the rule of law — and also wants to see the death penalty banned in Ohio.

“Every time when I left my home that was a question that always entered my mind,” Collins said during a Sept. 20 panel on the death penalty held in Mount Auburn. “Did we get this right? We can’t afford to make mistakes with the death penalty.”

Collins is not the only conservative former official from Ohio’s justice system calling for repeal of capital punishment in the state. Former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro has also come out against the death penalty. Both say the state’s highest penalty falls most often on low-income minorities in Ohio’s urban areas and that recent exonerations of death row inmates prove that the process for seeking a capital punishment conviction is far from perfect.

It’s a turnaround for Petro. The Supreme Court effectively halted the death penalty in 1972 with a ruling requiring states to rewrite their capital punishment laws. After retooling laws to address the court’s concerns, the Ohio legislature voted in 1981 to reinstate the state’s death penalty. Petro, a state representative at the time, voted for that bill. But when he became attorney general in 2003, he was shocked by the number of upcoming executions he would need to oversee.

“The first one we undertook was a few months into my first year,” he says. “Honestly, I was an emotional wreck afterward. It was difficult for me.”

Petro would eventually oversee 18 executions during his term, which ended in 2007. During his time as attorney general, Petro gradually realized he was opposed to the death penalty.  He and his wife Nancy, also an active opponent of the death penalty, authored a book making a case against capital punishment, titled False Justice: Eight Myths that Convict the Innocent.       “We will, and we have in the past, executed innocent people,” Petro says. “That’s an overwhelming thought, but I know it to be a fact.”

Activists are encouraged by the way Petro and Collins have spoken out. “I think Ohio has really come full-circle on this issue,” says Kevin Werner, executive director of Ohioans to Stop Executions. “To hear people like Jim Petro say ‘I don’t know that we’re getting this right,’ I think that should give us all pause.”

Nationally, 1,320 people have been executed since 1978. A 2014 University of Michigan study found that courts run about a 4 percent error rate in death sentence cases, meaning that it’s likely dozens of people have been wrongfully executed since that time. Sometimes justice catches up before it’s too late. Six-hundred-thirty-three people have been exonerated of murder charges since 1978, many of them recently with the help of DNA identification. One-hundred-four of those wrongfully convicted were sentenced to death. Petro touts his work on a statewide DNA database, which has helped exonerate a number of people wrongly convicted of murder and other serious crimes.

One of those people is Joe DeAmbrosio, who was convicted with two other men in the 1988 killing of 19-year-old Estel Klann. Later reviews of the case found prosecutorial misconduct, including suppressed evidence of DeAmbrosio’s innocence. These revelations, along with DNA evidence, led to his exoneration in 2012. He’s the sixth death row inmate in Ohio to be exonerated.

Ohio has executed 53 people since reinstating its death penalty. The state’s large urban counties are responsible for most of the state’s death sentences. Hamilton County counts for less than 7 percent of the state’s population, for instance, but has given out 19 percent of its death sentences. And Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is located, has only 11 percent of the state’s population but hands down an astounding 37 percent of its death sentences. Race is also a factor. More than two-thirds of murder victims in the state are black, but three quarters of death sentences are for the murder of a white victim, according to state data.

“My stance on the death penalty changed because of the fairness of the system,” Collins says. “I don’t believe it’s right in this state that the county you may be arrested in, what your economic status may be or your race may be should determine whether or not you end up on death row.”

Another overarching theme critics bring up is the power prosecutors have to pursue death penalty cases, even when evidence is very thin. “Prosecutors have to give up some of the broad discretion that they have for the greater good,” Werner says. “When we look at why wrongful convictions happen, when we look at the counties they come from, it’s always about human error, it’s always about tunnel vision.”

A 2011 task force meant to evaluate the fairness of the state’s capital punishment system did so with one limitation — an outright ban on capital punishment was off the table. This spring, the task force delivered 56 recommended changes, including a ban on executing the mentally ill and limits to the powers prosecutors can wield. But even with growing support, many changes are unlikely to make it through the legislature.

State Senator Bill Seitz, a Republican, says he thinks change is vital but that it will take baby steps. He says he’ll work the task force’s recommendations into a number of bills that will come before the legislature next session.

Fellow conservatives like Petro and Collins agree with this approach but also say they’d ideally like to see capital punishment done away with entirely.

“I’ve always been and will always be a person who believes you should be punished if you violate the rules of society,” Collins says. “And there are some people in prison who should never get out of prison. But that doesn’t mean they should get the death penalty, either.” ©

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