Death penalty system ‘broken’

First Posted: 5/6/2014

WAPAKONETA — For Joe D’Ambrosio. For Melinda Elkins-Dawson. For Charles Keith. Ohio’s administration of the death penalty is broken.

They each had the opportunity to tell their stories and Judge James A. Brogan took advantage of the chance to explain many of the 56 recommendations made by the Ohio Supreme Court’s Joint Task Force to Review the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty during a public forum Tuesday organized by Ohioans to Stop Executions.

D’Ambrosio spent 22 years on death row because the prosecutor, the police and the coroner’s office withheld exculpatory or impeachable evidence that would have proved his innocence.

“The system is broken and no matter what the task force does it is really just putting lipstick on a pig,” D’Ambrosio said. “You can’t fix something this broken. This may help, but it will not fix. It cannot fix something so messed up that they can take innocent lives and it means nothing to them. The funny thing is on the death certificate they put homicide so it is the same thing they are doing to you that they claimed you did.”

Elkins-Dawson spent nearly eight years to clear her husband for the murder of her mother and the beating and rape of her 6-year-old niece on June 7, 2005. After getting DNA and other evidence as well as the support of former Attorney General Jim Petro, she had to fight with the prosecutors and investigators in Summit County.

It took its toll on her life and their two sons. She managed to help apprehend the real killer, Earl Mann, who lived next door to her mother. She fought then against the death penalty. Now divorced and remarried, Elkins-Dawson continues her fight against the death penalty.

Brogan, who is a former prosecutor from Montgomery County and who supports the death penalty, explained the task force developed 56 recommendations to make the death penalty in Ohio more fair. The task force, comprised of judges, prosecutors, academics, legislators and defense attorneys, met for two years and their formal report is expected to be released on May 20.

“There has been a dissenting opinion and most of the prosecutors are opposed to many of our recommendations, and I am here to inform the local public of what we did and how important it is for the public to weigh in our recommendations with their own state representatives and their neighbors,” Brogan said.

Brogan said one of the more important recommendations is based on the geographic disparity of how death penalty cases are prosecuted. In 46 counties, there have been no death penalties prosecuted while in other counties there have been considerably more.

“We think there should be a central committee that would review the desirability of proceeding with a death penalty prosecution so it doesn’t result from the opinion of one prosecutor in one county,” Brogan said. “A panel of experienced prosecutors would pass on the desirability of proceeding on a death penalty case.”

They also recommended setting up capital punishment litigation fund because of the disparity in compensation paid to defense attorneys. Under this plan, the state would pay the same to every appointed lawyer across the state as well as pay for experts. It would also help pay prosecutors.

“Another important recommendation is all confessions be video or audio taped because there have been a number of cases where the person was exonerated after they allegedly confessed so we want to presume those are involuntary unless they are video or audio taped,” Brogan said. “We also want to make sure that death penalty verdicts are based on reliable evidence.”

It would require two positive identifications and any confession would have to be collaborated by the evidence.

Now the next step is for the Legislature to consider the report.

“The hard work now is the Legislature has to decide if they even want to have hearings on these recommendations and want to introduce legislation,” Brogan said. “We believe the Legislature will give it a careful examination and fair consideration.

“There have been several commissions that after the task force submitted their report it led to the abolition of the death penalty in those states,” he said. “I don’t know if that would happen here. It just is if we are going to have the death penalty let’s make sure it is even-handedly and fairly administered.”

Keith, whose brother was wrongfully convicted of murder and later exonerated and whose other brother was murdered, wants to see the recommendations instituted to ensure innocent people don’t die on death row.

“My objection is with the system itself because anytime you can ensnare and find guilty and execute an innocent man is in itself murder,” Keith said. “I think it is a broken system that can convict and execute the innocent.”