By: - March 29, 2023 4:55 am

From left, Sens. Steve Huffman, R-Tipp City, Michele Reynolds, R-Canal Winchester, Nickie Antonio, D-Lakewood and Hearcel Craig, D-Columbus in the Ohio Capitol Tuesday announcing legislation to repeal the death penalty. Photo by Marty Schladen, Ohio Capital Journal

A group of Ohio lawmakers is again trying to kill the death penalty. As she has since 2011, Sen. Nickie Antonio, D-Lakewood, on Tuesday announced that she and some colleagues were introducing legislation abolishing it. 

It might seem like a shot in the dark. But amid exonerations and shifting sentiment about the ultimate punishment, Antonio seemed to believe that this year’s version has a better shot than ever.

“We’ve seen an increase in support and in bipartisan sponsorship,” she said in a press conference at the Capitol. “I believe that it is indeed time in Ohio to take the pragmatic, economically prudent, principled step to end capital punishment, which has been found to be expensive, imprudent, impractical, unjust, inhumane and in the past, even erroneous.”

Joining Antonio on the stage were Sens. Michele Reynolds, R-Canal Winchester, Hearcel Craig, D-Columbus, and Steve Huffman, R-Tipp City.

Antonio said that in total, five Republicans and seven Democrats in the Senate have agreed to cosponsor anti-death penalty legislation. For the most heinous crimes, it would replace execution with life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Ohio has stayed all executions since Mike DeWine, a Republican, became governor in January 2019. A devout Catholic, DeWine first cited a federal judge’s fears that Ohio’s death protocol amounted to torture to justify delays. Then he cited the difficulty getting execution drugs from manufacturers who are adamantly opposed to using what’s made to be medicine to instead kill people.

As DeWine has delayed executions, public opinion about the death penalty has continued a decades-long shift. 

A 2021 poll said a slight majority of Ohioans support a repeal of the death penalty, with that figure rising to 59% when respondents are told about problems applying it. National polling from Gallup last year said that 55% of Americans still support the death penalty, near a 50-year low.

Surely helping to drive the change of heart is that in Ohio, 11 people have been exonerated and released from death row, joining nearly 200 people who have been similarly released nationwide since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1973.

Among other problems that have been cited are gaping racial disparities in  the way the penalty is applied. Craig said that over half of the 138 people on Ohio’s death row are Black, which is wildly out of proportion for a group that makes up just 13% of the state’s population.

In response to Tuesday’s announcement, the group representing Ohio prosecutors doubled down on its longstanding position in favor of the death penalty.

“The public is worried about rising crime and increasing violence in our communities and instead of finding ways to increase public safety, help us secure justice for victims, and find a pathway to justice for the victims of Ohio’s most horrific crimes, we have legislators who want to cut Ohio’s worst criminals a break,” Louis Tobin, Executive Director of the Prosecuting Attorney’s Association, said in a statement. “It’s unfortunate, it’s dangerous, and it’s out of touch.”  

Tobin didn’t address racial disparities on death row in his statement. Nor did he mention wrongful convictions by Ohio prosecutors.

In addition, the National Research Council in 2012 issued a report saying there weren’t data to show what effect executions had on murder rates, much less allow comparisons to life without parole. That jibes with other reports saying researchers haven’t established that the death penalty to deters crime.

Meanwhile, Huffman said the death penalty holds out a false promise to victims’ families, and then brutalizes them further.

“Often the death penalty is not closure for the family,” he said. “You think that it is sometimes. But when a family member or family members have to go back to court for 20, 25 years and relive whatever horrible event that their family member went through — they were murdered — it’s not closure. If someone is sentenced to life without parole (a family member) can say, ‘This is done. I’m not going to have to go to court and live these things over and over again.'”

For his part, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost on Tuesday issued a statement saying that he supported the death penalty, standing, he said, “with the families of the slain.”

“The bottom line: Ohio’s death penalty is a farce and a broken promise of justice — and it must be fixed,” Yost said.

The attorney general didn’t propose reforms that would make Ohio’s death penalty more workable. That’s proven to be an elusive goal in other states that have tried bringing back the gas chamber, the electric chair and even firing squads.

With more than a third of the 33-member Ohio Senate co-sponsoring a death penalty repeal, it seems to have healthy support in that chamber. But will its leadership allow the legislation to move?

The lawmakers at Tuesday’s press conference referred that question to Huffman because his cousin is the leadership, Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima.

“I’ve had discussions with the president,” Steve Hoffman said. “Our fathers were both prosecutors who have put people on death row. My father turned around after he was ordained in the Catholic Church as a deacon and defended people to prevent them from going to death row. 

“I think (Matt Huffman) looks at it from an attorney’s point of view and I understand that. He has said that he’s open to discuss this and debate this and… he said he’ll look at it,” Steve Huffman said.

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Marty Schladen
Marty Schladen

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He's won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.

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