Panel recommends changes to Ohio's death penalty law

By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS Associated Press Published:

COLUMBUS -- Ohio should restrict the use of capital punishment charges and create a state panel to approve them, according to two of the 56 recommendations in the final report by a committee that spent more than two years studying changes to the law.

The committee proposes eliminating cases where an aggravated murder was committed during a burglary, robbery or rape, requiring solid proof of a defendant's guilt such as DNA evidence, and banning the execution of the mentally ill, according to a draft copy of the report obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press.

The state panel would be run by the Attorney General and would approve or disapprove of death penalty charges proposed by a county prosecutor. That panel, similar to the approach taken by federal prosecutors, is meant to reduce the role that race plays in death penalty cases, according to a final draft of the report, dated March 31. It would include former county prosecutors and members of the Attorney General's staff.

The death penalty review committee, created in 2011 by Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O'Connor, convenes Thursday for what's expected to be its final meeting. O'Connor declined comment ahead of the meeting.

The committee "believes that the recommendations made by this report will promote fairness in capital cases for both the state and the defendant," the report said.

Several of the committee's recommendation would need legislative approval, with support uncertain in what remains a death penalty-friendly state.

Among the recommendations, the report proposes that Ohio:

Pass a law banning the use of the death penalty unless prosecutors have biological or DNA evidence linking the defendant to the crime, a videotaped, voluntary confession; or a video recording that "conclusively links" the defendant to the killing.

Ban death penalty charges where prosecutors used testimony from jailhouse snitches that was not independently verified at the time a jury is weighing the sentence in a capital case.

Pass a Racial Justice Act law allowing for the filing of racial disparity claims.

Require that police interrogations of defendants in death penalty cases be considered involuntary unless they were recorded.

Use plain English in jury instructions for death penalty cases.

The report also recommends requiring a condemned inmate's interview with the Ohio Parole Board ahead of a clemency hearing be a public record.

The mental illness recommendation includes defendants who were mentally ill at the time of the crime or at the time of a scheduled execution.

The report also recommends eliminating kidnapping, rape, aggravated arson, aggravated robbery and aggravated burglary as elements of a crime that could lead to a death penalty charge. The committee says such factors rarely lead to death sentences but can increase racial disparities in sentencing. Multiple murders, the murder of a child or a police office would remain as death penalty elements.

A dissenting report is expected from committee members, including prosecutors, who oppose several of the recommendations.

Ohioans to Stop Executions said it will push for passage of proposals with the most impact.

"If we have to have a death penalty, let's make it a fairer one," said Kevin Werner, the group's executive director.

O'Connor convened the committee in the fall of 2011 to look at ways to improve Ohio's death penalty law while making it clear that proposals to eliminate the law were off-limits.

O'Connor, a Republican and a former prosecutor, appointed judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, prison officials and death penalty experts to the committee. She has said the committee's goal was to produce a fair, impartial and balanced analysis of the state's 3-decade-old law.

Ohio enacted its current death penalty in 1981 and it has largely survived any major constitutional challenges. The state resumed executions in 1999 and has put 53 men to death, with another execution scheduled for next month.

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