Study: Majority of Ohio death row inmates suffer from mental illness, cognitive disabilities

Some state lawmakers want to tighten restrictions on the execution of people with mental illness or mental disabilities.

Now that it has resumed executions after winning a fight over controversial lethal injection drugs, Ohio is set to put 26 people to death over the next three years.

Of those inmates, the vast majority have intellectual disabilities, struggle with profound mental illness or suffer from severe childhood trauma and abuse, according to a study from Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project released yesterday.

The group analyzed the case histories of 23 of the 26 Ohio death row inmates slated for execution between now and 2020 and found that each has circumstances that make the appropriateness of their death sentence questionable.

The report comes as some lawmakers, including a local state representative, look to tighten restrictions on the state's ability to execute inmates who suffer from provable mental illness or mental disability. But those in favor of the death penalty, including the head of the organization that represents Ohio's county prosecutors, say that's a bad idea.

The Massachusetts-based Fair Punishment Project advocates for a more fair and accountable justice system across the country. It says Ohio's death row inmates illustrate big problems with its administration of the state's most severe punishment.

“Our research on individuals facing execution in Ohio turned up some absolutely horrifying stories of abuse, mental illness and disability,” FPP legal director Jessica Brand says. “In fact, in 88 percent of the cases we looked at, we found significant impairments, many of which were never considered by a judge or jury. This indicates something has clearly gone awry in the state’s implementation of the death penalty.”

The next person Ohio is slated to execute is Gary Otte, who is scheduled to die by lethal injection Sept. 13. Otte was convicted of shooting two people during armed robberies in Parma in 1992. He’s been appealing his death sentence for years, and an earlier execution date of May 15, 2017 set by the Ohio Supreme Court was pushed back after a long fight over the state’s use of certain lethal injection drugs that can cause protracted, potentially painful executions.

Otte struggled with drug abuse from the age of 10 years old and attempted suicide when he was 14. He had a history of chronic depression and other psychological problems, and records show he suffered from developmental delays and learning disabilities. Otte was 20 years old when he committed the murders — he is one of three inmates scheduled to die for crimes they committed before the age of 21.

The U.S. Supreme Court barred the execution of inmates who committed their crimes before the age of 18, arguing that young people are more susceptible to outside influences, and that scientific research suggests their brains haven’t developed enough to prevent them from sometimes incredibly irresponsible behavior. Because of that, the court found that even egregious acts by juveniles aren’t as “morally reprehensible as that of an adult.”

FPP’s report argues that 18 is an arbitrary, and too early, age at which to draw the line and that inmates like Otte shouldn’t be put to death for crimes they committed before 21.

“Because the same deficiencies in cognitive processes, risk-reward evaluation, and emotional regulation exist in young adults, their culpability, relative to a mature adult, is likewise reduced,” the report reads.For this reason, a trial court in Kentucky recently found the death penalty was unconstitutional for those who committed their crimes before turning 21.”

Other inmates awaiting execution faced more horrendous circumstances.

The report found that 11 of the 23 men for whom mitigating evidence was presented in court have intellectual impairments, 17 had experienced severe childhood trauma rooted in physical or sexual abuse, and that six were experiencing severe mental illness. Three of the 26 men on Ohio’s death row waived the opportunity to present mitigating evidence related to their crimes, and thus it’s unknown if they have a history of abuse, mental illness or cognitive disabilities.

Another inmate, Archie Dixon, also 20 when he was accused of the 1993 murder of his roommate Christopher Hammer, experienced a lifetime of physical and sexual abuse within his family. Dixon, whose IQ has tested at just 77, had a deformation in his ribs from an incident in which his father kicked him with steel-toed boots. Dixon also witnessed his father abuse his mother and siblings. His grandfather also sexually abused his sisters during Dixon’s childhood. His attorney never presented this information during Dixon’s one-day murder trial.

Other inmates profiled in the FPP’s report have similar backgrounds, leading the group to call foul on Ohio’s scheduled executions.

“The Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of society’s most vulnerable and limits its imposition to the most culpable in our society,” the report concludes.Unless the governor or a court intervenes, over the course of the next two years, Ohio is poised to violate that constitutional limitation by scheduling the executions of nearly a dozen individuals with devastating impairments, including mental illness, childhood abuse, and intellectual disability.”

Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association Executive Director John Murphy has said that current state laws against executions for the mentally ill or disabled are adequate safeguards and that any further bars would inhibit the justice system from appropriately applying the death penalty.

An Ohio Supreme Court joint task force on the death penalty included a ban on executing the mentally ill among recommendations it has made to the state. Many of those recommendations, including the ban, have not been passed by state lawmakers or implemented by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.

A bill currently before the Ohio General Assembly sponsored by State Rep. Bill Seitz, a Republican from Cincinnati, would take up that recommendation, preventing the execution of convicts who can prove they were suffering from mental illness or impairment at the time of their crimes and allow current inmates on death row to file for re-sentencing.

Murphy and others who see the death penalty as a necessity oppose the legislation.

“If this were enacted, I think it would in effect repeal the death penalty,”  Murphy told the Columbus Dispatch. “Proponents argue that the process would apply to very few persons — we don’t see it that way. I think every single one of the persons on death row will file for this.”

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