COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – A group of Ohio lawmakers crossed the aisle Tuesday in calling for a repeal of the state’s death penalty.
The bipartisan slate of state senators – two Democrats and two Republicans – announced their intent to introduce legislation that would abolish the death penalty in Ohio, instead replacing what they called an “unfair, inhumane” and costly punishment with life in prison without parole.
“No man or woman has the authority to determine who lives or who dies – otherwise, the blood is on our hands,” said Sen. Michele Reynolds (R-Canal Winchester), one of the bill’s sponsors.
In 2021, Ohio ranked No. 6 for the largest death row population in the U.S., according to the Death Penalty Information Center. With 138 active death sentences that year, Ohio fell behind California (708), Florida (345), Texas (207), Alabama (170) and North Carolina (141).
But Reynolds, joined by Sens. Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood), Hearcel Craig (D-Columbus) and Steve Huffman (R-Tipp City), argued the longstanding use of executions has caused more harm than good in Ohio – including the collective 216-year death row imprisonment of 11 innocent Ohioans later who were later exonerated of their crimes.
“We as a society must be better than our worst criminals and better than our flawed justice system,” Antonio said. “Capital punishment is not pursued with equity – it’s been described by former Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer as a ‘death lottery,’ depending on where you happen to commit the crime and the attitude of the prosecutor.”
Huffman, a devout Catholic, discussed his faith-based opposition to the use of executions. And Craig, who also raised his religious opposition to the practice, said the death penalty is disproportionately used against Black people.
Nationwide, Black people account for about 13% of the population yet make up nearly 42% of prisoners on death row, the Death Penalty Information Center found in 2021.
“Why is there such a deep discrepancy, if not for racial bias presented in our legal system?” Craig said.
“The majority of Ohio’s death row comes only from a handful of counties – the ones that can afford the high costs of a death penalty trial,” he said.
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, however, stood firm in his support for the death penalty, “especially for the most heinous offenders and as a way to protect our corrections officers,” he said in a statement shortly following the lawmakers’ address.
“If Ohio chooses to end capital punishment, let it own the decision in the full light of day,” Yost said. “I will stand on the other side, with the families of the slain.”
A majority of Ohioans, or 59%, support replacing the state’s death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole, according to a Tarrance Group poll in Februrary 2021.
Antonio, who has unsuccessfully backed similar death penalty-repeal legislation since 2011, argued that sentencing someone to death row fails to adequately bring closure to the families of victims, who may be forced to relive a tragic event throughout decades of court hearings pertaining to an offender’s death sentence. And life in prison without parole, she said, still serves as sufficient retribution for convicted offenders.
“I would argue that having someone wake up every day, be in that space and think about what they themselves did to put themselves there, is justice served,” she said.
In recent years, executions in Ohio have dwindled, largely due to a lack of supply lethal injection drugs. Gov. Mike DeWine has issued several reprieves to death row prisoners since assuming office in 2019.
If enacted, Ohio would join 23 other states in abolishing the death penalty. A bill number has yet to be assigned to the lawmakers’ proposed legislation.