Fewer death penalty cases?

Fewer crimes would be eligible for the death penalty in Ohio under a recent recommendation by an Ohio Supreme Court task force assigned with determining how fairly Ohio’s death penalty is administered.

The Joint Task Force on the Death Penalty proposed eliminating the death penalty for murders committed in tandem with certain other crimes, such as rape, arson, robbery, kidnapping and burglary during its June meeting.

The recommendation would keep capital punishment in place for killings involving multiple victims, children under 13, police and witnesses.

The task force is made up of prosecutors, public defenders, judges, professors and Ohio legislators.

Members of the task force in favor of narrowing capital punishment eligibility argue that the change would help do away with racial and geographical disparity in the administration of Ohio’s death penalty.

A 2007 assessment of Ohio’s death penalty system by the American Bar Association found that offenders with a white victim were nearly four times as likely to receive the death penalty as those whose victims were black.

However, Marietta attorney Dennis Sipe argued that simply narrowing eligibility will do little to fix racial and socio-economic problems with the system.

“If the recommendation is we’re going to limit (eligibility) but prosecutorial discretion for seeking the death penalty is still available, I don’t see how that changes anything,” he said.

Currently the decision on whether or not to seek the death penalty in a case lies with county prosecutors.

A second major recommendation by the panel would see the creation of a state panel that would have oversight on when prosecutors could pursue the death penalty.

Sipe said this would have a better chance of eliminating disparity factors.

“With an oversight committee you wouldn’t have one county saying I’m going for the death penalty every single time and another county saying I will only do it if these certain factors are there,” he said.

But Washington County Prosecutor Jim Schneider said there are already plenty of checks and balances in place, including the appeals process.

“We have enough oversight as is. We don’t need the people in Columbus telling us how to operate on things,” he said.

The panel would be overseen by the attorney general’s office and would consist of staff from the attorney general’s office and former county prosecutors appointed by the governor.

Ohio Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, said he generally opposed the formation of such a panel.

“I want to let the legal system do their job. I think we have a good system as is and to me, that would add a layer of complication to it,” he said.

Recommendations made by the task force would still require legislative action to become law-something that probably would not happen until 2014 as the task force is not set to finish its assessment until late this year.

Whipple resident Kathy Waggoner, 54, said that reducing the number of death penalty eligible crimes is a bad idea.

“I think the death penalty is not used enough. There are people who sit (in prison) for 20 to 30 years and it’s ridiculous to pay for people to sit there,” she said.

However, Sipe countered that trying death penalty cases to fruition is much more expensive than having a convicted murder live out his or her natural life in prison.

“In order (to defend a death penalty case) in Ohio, you must have two lawyers and they have to acquire additional education and continuing eduction,” said Sipe, the only Washington County attorney certified to represent individuals in death penalty cases.

In 2005, Noble County prosecutors opted not to pursue the death penalty against 40-year-old Peter J. Ligas, of Sarahsville, for the killing of a Tallmadge man because the county was already pursuing the death penalty against Fred A. Mundt Jr.

Mundt, 38, of Monroe County, is the only area person currently on death row.

He was sentenced to death in Noble County Common Pleas Court in 2005 for the rape and murder of 7-year-old Brittany Hendrickson.

At the outset of Mundt’s trial, the county estimated that it could cost more than $1 million from start to finish.

An execution date for Mundt is not listed on the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction website.

Schneider has handled a potential death penalty case as recently as 2011.

Former Marietta resident Landon Evans was accused of killing his newborn daughter by smothering her in a Marietta motel room in 2008, a crime not discovered for several years. If taken to trial, Evans would have faced the death penalty.

However, Evans pleaded guilty in April 2011 to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced a month later to spend 24 years in prison for that and other related charges.

As it was initially charged, Evans’ crime would still be eligible for the death penalty under the new recommendation because the victim was under age 13, as is the case with Mundt’s crime as well.

However, the only two defendants Sipe has “lost to the needle” would not have been eligible under the recommendation.

One was convicted of a murder that happened during a car theft and the other a murder that happened in relation to a kidnapping and rape, said Sipe. The cases were not local.

In total, five of the last 10 inmates put to death in Ohio would not have been eligible under the change.

“If states are going to have the death penalty then it makes complete sense to impose it on people who kill somebody while committing another serious crime,” said Schneider.

From a legal standpoint, Schneider said he understands that states employ the death penalty as a deterrent for would-be killers.

“We know people are going to continue robbing banks, but we want them to do it without killing people,” he said.

But while Schneider has tried death penalty cases and will continue to do so as the law permits, he opposes capital punishment in general, he said.

“I’m not in favor of the death penalty at all for personal reasons,” he said.

Warren Township resident Mike Wagner, 47, feels the same way.

“I believe in the Bible and we do not, as a society, have the authority to take human life. Only God has that authority,” said Wagner, who favors doing away with the death penalty entirely.

When Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor commissioned the task force in 2011 to suggest changes to Ohio’s current death penalty law, she stressed that the entire removal of the state’s death penalty was not to be part of the discussion.

In fact, attempts to ban the death penalty in the Ohio legislature have typically never gone very far, said Thompson.

“The death penalty is one of those issues that splits conservatives,” he said.

Thompson said he is “kind of supportive” of the death penalty and thinks the criteria should remain as it is.