I know the pain of losing a loved one to murder and I know how urgently one wants the crime resolved.
My beloved sister, Jennifer, was 21 years old when she was killed in her Cleveland home, which she shared with her 2-year-old daughter, Imani. Her murder remains unsolved. I learned of Jennifer’s death while attending a church convention. I rushed home, joined my sister Theresa in planning Jennifer’s funeral, and began integrating Imani into my household.
Every time I hear anyone say victim family members need executions in order to heal, I cringe. How would anyone who has not experienced this loss understand what one needs to heal? For the few cases where death is the sentence, victim families are putting their healing process on hold for a very long time.
This was starkly illustrated in The Lima News recently in coverage of the case of Cleveland Jackson, who is on death row for his murders of Jala Grant and Leneshia Williams in 2002. Jackson is set to be executed in Ohio on Nov. 13th. If it goes forward, Jackson’s will be the first execution under Governor DeWine.
In the article, Leneshia’s mother and grandmother shared that they no longer celebrate joyous occasions like Christmas and family events. They have put their healing process on hold while waiting for an execution which may never come.
I am not here to debate Ms. Williams and Ms. Smith, nor do I discount their feelings in any way. I offer instead pastoral presence if they are interested, and a different perspective.
First, it is important to note that the vast majority of Ohio murder cases do not result in a death sentence. Death sentences from Allen County are especially rare, and so too is the execution of a defendant when the victim is black. People of color are the victims of violent crime in Ohio roughly 66% of the time, yet of Ohio’s 56 executions so far, the victims in those cases were white about 66% of the time. The disparities of our legal system do not take away from the awfulness of any crime, but when we talk about the ultimate punishment, we also have to talk about how we decide who gets it and who does not. Race, politics, and the reality of county lines and county budgets certainly play major roles.
To me, it is a blessing that most murders do not result in capital punishment. Without a death sentence, murder victim family members are not being asked to wait decades to begin our healing process. We don’t have to re-open our wounds every time the case comes up in the news or whenever there is a next step in a very long legal process.
Ohio currently has 24 men with execution dates extending into 2024. By the time of their executions, five will have been on death row between 15 and 20 years. Eleven will have been there more than 20 years, and eight will have been there more than 30 years. It is absolutely unacceptable that some victim family members have waited over 30 years to begin healing. At 17 years, Mr. Jackson’s case is also an outlier because of Cleveland Jackson’s relatively brief time on death row.
Some say speed up executions, but then we run the risk of wrongful executions. Thirteen Ohioans who faced death at trial have been exonerated and freed. Four were released from life sentences, and nine after having been condemned to death — all for crimes they did not commit. For many, it was after decades on death row or in prison.
Ohio’s death penalty law was enacted in 1982, and our state has conducted 56 executions since 1999. I don’t know how many murders have taken place in that time, but what is clear is that this rare and seemingly random practice begs the question of what government-sponsored services and supportive measures are available to the vast majority of murder victim families? I can tell you that my family received nothing.
Murder victim families deserve the truth about what happened to our loved ones. We all want dangerous offenders held accountable, and we certainly don’t want the wrong persons punished. Instead of the death penalty, what would be helpful would be a consistent standard of service for all murder victim families in Ohio. Currently, there is no statewide standard protocol of service, and services may vary widely depending on the budget of the county of the murder.
We can do better for Ohio’s murder victim family members without executions.
Rev. Dr. Jack Sullivan Jr. is the executive director of the Ohio Council of Churches, a partnership of 17 Christian faith denominations encompassing roughly 4,000 congregations and 2 million members. He also serves as board chairperson of Ohioans to Stop Executions.