The case against the death penalty, and why Ohio should end it

December 24, 2019 12:30 am
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File photo from Wikimedia Commons

Ohio continues to be unable to execute people because the pharmaceutical industry refuses to supply the necessary drugs.

In fact, those companies have said they will stop selling all drugs to Ohio if any of their drugs are used in executions.

On Friday, Gov. Mike DeWine delayed another execution — from February 2020 to March 2021 — due to the inability of the state of Ohio to obtain these drugs.

Now Ohio House Republicans are talking about dumping the death penalty entirely.

“We may have a law in place that allows for a death penalty that we can’t carry out,” House Speaker Larry Householder told the Columbus Dispatch. “And the question is: Are the costs that are associated with that and retrials and all these things, at the end of the day, is it worth that?”

From 2007 to 2012, according to Amnesty International, the United States ranked fifth globally in executions with 220. That number has been reduced drastically in recent years, with the United States ranking No. 7 in 2018 with 25 executions.

More than two-thirds of countries around the world have abolished the death penalty. As of July 2018, according to Amnesty International, 106 countries have abolished it for all crimes and 28 have abolished it in practice if not as a matter of law. Eight still allow capital punishment only in extraordinary circumstances. Fifty-six retain the death penalty.

In the United States, 21 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have abolished the death penalty for all crimes.

And then there’s Ohio. Ohio reinstated the death penalty in 1974, but the law was struck down as unconstitutional in 1978. The current law went into effect in 1981, but Ohio didn’t resume putting inmates to death until 1999.

Ohio has executed 56 people since, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Then the case of Dennis McGuire happened, where in January of 2014, McGuire “snorted and gasped” for 26 minutes before dying. That was Ohio’s last execution, for now.

Ohio currently has 140 people on death row. Cuyahoga County recently ranked No. 1 in the nation for sentencing the death penalty.

Having argued against the death penalty for nearly 20 years, I almost never expect agreement. Back in the ’90s, support for the death penalty was regularly over 80%.

According to Pew Research Center, since the mid-1990s, support for the death penalty has fallen among Democrats and independents but remained strong among Republicans.

“As recently as 2007, about twice as many Americans favored (64%) as opposed (29%) the death penalty for people convicted of murder,” Pew reports. “Today, 54% of Americans favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, while 39% are opposed, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in April and May (2018).”

Typically, any argument against the death penalty is first combated by the person in favor of the death penalty bringing up a hypothetical murder of a loved one.

“What if this happened to someone you love,” they say, “wouldn’t you want the person who did that to be put to death?”

Of course I would. I’m only human. If somebody did something awful to someone I love, I would want to avenge them. But while this wrathful desire might be perfectly natural for any human being, we aren’t asking about whether we personally would desire retribution.

We are asking whether the state we’ve established for our self-governance should be given the authority to carry out this kind of blood vengeance. The systems of human governance are weaker than we like to admit — even in strong republics like our American one. They are prone to factious tribalism, and if their small-d democratic systems are weak or weakened enough, they sometimes fall to authoritarianism.

Having established law that gives government the authority to take its citizens’ lives becomes a very dangerous proposition if or when those citizens are put into battle against authoritarianism. Do we really think it’s wise, given human history, to hand any government the lawful ability to execute us? My answer is no, I do not think that is wise.

My second argument relates to any wrongly convicted person who is put to death.

According to the Innocence Project, newly available DNA evidence has allowed the exoneration and release of more than 17 death row inmates since 1992 in the United States.

But the justice system is quirky, to say the least of it, and often there are strict time restraints on the exculpatory power of such DNA evidence, leading to its being denied for introduction upon appeal, or simply unavailable in the first place.

According to the Northwestern University School of Law, at least 39 executions are claimed to have been carried out in the U.S. in the face of evidence of innocence or serious doubt about guilt. I’d argue executing even one innocent person is one too many.

Other arguments against the death penalty relate to well-known racial disparities, as well as the scientific consensus that the death penalty does not serve as a deterrent.

Yet another argument to be made is that the death penalty is in violation of the Eight Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment clause. While I personally believe this to be the case, the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet seen fit to agree with me.

But perhaps Ohio might do well to stop trying to prove my point about that whole cruel and unusual business — which even the pharmaceutical industry is too ethical to abide — and end the death penalty entirely.

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David DeWitt
David DeWitt

OCJ Editor-in-Chief David DeWitt has more than 15 years experience covering Ohio government, politics and policy, including education, health care, crime and courts, poverty, state and local government, business, labor, energy, environment, and social issues. He has worked for the National Journal, The New York Observer, The Athens NEWS, and He holds a bachelor’s degree from Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and is a board member of the E.W. Scripps Society of Alumni and Friends. He can be found on Twitter @DC_DeWitt.