Over the past few days, I maintained my certification to represent indigent defendants in capital murder cases. The Ohio Supreme Court certifies the attorneys on the list and one of the justices on the Court, Justice Paul Pfeifer made news last year by publicly rejecting the capital punishment law he helped create. Pfeifer reasoned that, “the death sentence makes no sense to me at this point when you can have life without the possibility of parole.”
Ohio’s capital punishment law, enacted in 1981, was written by Justice Pfeifer when he was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The law has never been successfully challenged. Pfeifer, a republican, began having doubts about the death penalty as early as 1994 when he dissented on a vote upholding the death penalty for a man convicted of shooting his ex-girlfriend at an elementary school where she was a custodian. More recently, while testifying in December in favor of a bill to abolish Ohio’s death penalty law, he stated “I don’t see what society gains from (the death penalty)”.
Upon closer review, society has very little, if anything, to gain from capital punishment. Relevant to our current economic state, it costs more to execute a person than to keep him or her in prison for life without the possibility of parole. Ohio has never conducted a study to support this, but other states have and the numbers are staggering. The California death penalty system cost taxpayers $114 million per year beyond the costs of keeping murderers locked up for life. (L.A. Times, March 6, 2005) In Kansas, the costs of capital cases are 70% more expensive than comparable non-capital cases, including the costs of incarceration. (Kansas Performance Audit Report, December 2003) In Florida between 1976 and 2000, the state carried out 44 executions at a cost of $24 million for each execution.
More important than the financial aspect is the potential for innocence. Innocent people have been convicted and executed which is a wrong that cannot be rectified. Further, there is no credible evidence that the death penalty is more of a deterrent than life in prison. Generally, states without the death penalty have lower murder rates and The South accounts for 80% of executions but has the highest regional murder rate. Lastly, there is no national or statewide standard for application of the death penalty. Politics, race and jurisdiction in which the crime occurred are huge determining factors in whether the death penalty is sought. Due to the foregoing factors, the current system in place is often referred to as the “Death Lottery”.
Like Justice Pfeifer, I am not minimizing the horrific crimes committed by individuals on Death Row or advocating for their release or pampered treatment. I propose that the death sentences previously handed down be commuted to life sentences without the possibility of parole and that Ohio abolish the death penalty. When the person that wrote the law is actively arguing to abolish it, I think it is time we distinguish our philosophies on crime and punishment from those of Iran and China.