Opponents of the death penalty in Ohio have been pointing out its flaws since capital punishment was reinstated two decades ago, but public opinion has favored it narrowly and no one with the power to truly endanger it has stepped into the fray. Bills to abolish it have come and gone.
But now, two of the state’s most powerful political leaders — Gov. Mike DeWine and House Speaker Larry Householder, both Republicans — question whether the law benefits Ohio any more.
Almost certainly, no major change will happen this year; Senate President Larry Obhof, also a Republican, appears unwilling to consider giving up the death penalty and even with his support, such a sea change in Ohio’s conservative-leaning General Assembly would take time. But the questions Householder and DeWine raise could be the beginning of the end.
People will continue to disagree on its morality: For some, it is the only fitting punishment for taking a life; others reject the idea that anything can justify purposefully killing a human being.
But one doesn’t need to moralize to make a case against capital punishment. Its practical drawbacks and lack of practical benefits have been apparent for a long time.
It is exceedingly expensive because most death-penalty trials rightly involve more investigation, more attorneys and more safeguards, and are subject to multiple levels of appeal. And as people sentenced to death are disproportionately poor, the public often pays for lawyers on both sides of the case.
The cost generally is several times what it would cost to keep the defendant in a maximum-security prison for 40 years. Housing Death Row inmates costs more than those in the general population.
There is no evidence that the death penalty deters anyone from committing violent crimes. According to FBI data compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center, states without capital punishment overall have significantly lower murder rates than those that execute killers.
That doesn’t prove anything, either. Lower rates could be because those states have better economies and schools. But academic studies have failed to find evidence that the presence or absence of capital punishment affects murder rates either way.
While some people suggest that executing a killer brings “closure” or peace to the victim’s loved ones, that is a myth. In reality, during 10 or 20 years of death-penalty appeals, with court appearances, ongoing news coverage and fresh recounting of the crime, a family’s emotional wounds are reopened repeatedly.
Life in prison with no chance of parole is, in fact, a death sentence: The defendant will disappear from public view and die in prison.
And in what seems to have been the tipping point for Householder, carrying out Ohio’s death penalty has become all but impossible. The only method of execution currently allowed in Ohio is by lethal injection, and a federal judge in 2019 opined that it creates an agonizing sensation akin to being waterboarded and thus constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the Constitution.
On top of that, companies that make the drugs that could be used for lethal injection don’t want them used for execution. The companies have threatened to withhold critical medications from Ohio’s Medicaid program if the state uses their products to kill someone.
As a result, DeWine has issued 11 stays of execution since taking office. The last execution in Ohio was in July 2018.
The difficulty, the cost and the lack of public benefit make Householder and DeWine right to question whether Ohio’s death penalty is worth keeping.
The only reason left for execution is vengeance, which is not an element of justice or the proper business of the state. It’s time for Ohio to do away with the death penalty.