Death Row cases should be reviewed, justice says

Justice Paul E. Pfeifer
By: Alan Johnson
Saturday, May 15, 2010
The "father of Ohio's death penalty," Supreme Court Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, says all current Death Row cases should be reviewed to see which ones warrant execution -- and which should be commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

"There are probably few people in Ohio that are proud of the fact we are executing people at the same pace as Texas," Pfeifer told The Dispatch. His comments came the day after the lethal injection of Michael Beuke, the fifth Ohioan executed this year and the 38th since 1999.

"When the next governor is sworn in," Pfeifer said, "I think the state would be well served if a blue-ribbon panel was appointed to look at all those cases.

"The only reason we have a death penalty is society demands retribution. ... I never made the argument that it was a deterrent. You can't prove it with numbers."

Pfeifer, a Supreme Court justice for the past 17 years, was one of three Republican state senators who resurrected Ohio's death-penalty law in 1981 after the old law had been declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

At the time, Pfeifer included a life without parole option in the law, but the Ohio House refused to go along.

Pfeifer, a Republican who is unopposed for re-election to a fourth term on the court this fall, emphasized that he is not suggesting that convicted killers are innocent, or that any should be set free.

"The point is whether or not death is the appropriate penalty," he said.

Pfeifer said the majority of the old cases, had they been tried today under current law and societal standards, would not have resulted in capital punishment.

"The number of people we have accumulated on Death Row has been rather staggering," he said. "It's improbable that all of those folks are going to be executed."

With a high number of executions and relatively few new death sentences being handed out (one last year), Death Row has shrunk nearly 21 percent in Ohio, from a high of 203 prisoners in January 2002 to the current 161.

Six more executions are scheduled this year, and two have been set for 2011.

Ohio Public Defender Tim Young called Pfeifer's suggestion "a tremendous idea, one we would greatly encourage."

"If people take the time to look at who's on Death Row, they will see types of cases that are so different because they are based on different sets of circumstances," Young said. "A person committing a crime in one part of the state might get the death penalty, and another person who committed a similar crime in another part of the state does not."

Young said such a review panel would be akin to how the federal government handles capital cases. A panel in the U.S. attorney general's office in Washington, D.C., must approve murder cases before U.S. district attorneys are cleared to seek the death penalty.

"We as a society always have an evolving standard of justice and fairness," Young said. "What we thought of as justice in 1776 when we cut people's ears off is not the same today. A decade ago, you could execute the mentally retarded."

Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray could not be reached for comment.

Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a capital punishment clearing house based in Washington, D.C., said it's unlikely Death Row will empty as long as states have death penalty laws on the books.

"The big question is, 'Are the cases that are being executed today, would they get the death penalty were they tried today?'" he said.

Dieter noted that former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, saying he would "no longer tinker with the machinery of death," commuted death sentences of all 156 inmates on that state's Death Row in 2003.

The Death Penalty Information Center website notes that since 1999, Ohio has had more executions than any state outside the South.

As in the South, "race appears to play a significant role in who receives the death penalty" in Ohio, the center said. In 38 executions, the death sentence was handed down 75 percent of the time when the victim was white, but 19 percent of the time when the victim was black.

None of the 38 executions involved a white killer and a black victim. However, seven blacks were put to death for killing white victims, the center said.