For more than 32 years I had the honor of working at the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. During my career I held various positions, including warden, regional director, assistant director and then director. In carrying out the responsibilities of my positions and the law of this great state, I personally observed the execution of 33 men from 2001 to 2010.
All 33 times, in the back of my mind I questioned: Had all the reviews and appeals got this case right? Did the process make certain, absolutely, there was no mistake or error? I wondered that because I had previously walked people out of prison who were found not guilty after years of incarceration. What if we got it wrong for those we executed?
Our judicial and corrections system is among the finest in the world. We provide some of the best attorneys, judges and corrections personnel anywhere. I know, have met and have worked closely with so many of them. Our judicial system is the envy of nations. Yet, we continue to be one of the few industrialized nations to carry out the death penalty when we know mistakes happen.
I respect Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul E. Pfeifer’s concerns about the death penalty. He wrote the law as a legislator and observed its implementation in the state’s highest court. His conclusion that it is exceedingly difficult for the death penalty to be administered in a fair and just way is worthy of public debate and scrutiny.
The death penalty is expensive, often inefficient and always time-consuming. Too often our justice system does not place the worst of the worst on Death Row. I saw some of the worst offenders in our prison system, and often they were not on Death Row. It surprised me, at times, to see who did end up on Death Row. I think this disparity is important for state leaders to address.
I am convinced that the death penalty is not a fiscally responsible policy for Ohio. It costs millions of dollars to execute people in Ohio, more than life imprisonment. Those costs begin at the trial phases and continue through appeals to pay for lawyers, judges and prisons. The expense of county and state resources that go into two separate trials in death penalty cases (one to decide innocence or guilt and the second to decide life or death) adds up quickly before anyone spends a single day on Death Row. Then the appeals begin, compounding these enormous costs. It is also expensive to maintain Death Rows once offenders begin to serve their time there. Costs related to the death penalty should be of serious concern, given our state’s need for cost-effective judicial reform.
There is another cost that we do not always consider: that borne by victims’ families. It is emotionally traumatic for the families of victims to be recalled into courts year after year because of so many death-penalty appeals. I observed firsthand the emotions of the victims’ families. An increasing number of families ask the state not to pursue the death penalty so that they are not faced with the painful task of attending appeals hearings, and so they can achieve closure. Life imprisonment without parole offers justice that is swift, certain, effectively severe and perhaps more sensitive to the needs of healing victims’ families.
Since life without parole became an option in Ohio, the number of death sentences has been drastically reduced. Many in our society have deemed this alternative to be a reasonable measure and a way to keep Ohio communities safe, something every member of the law-enforcement community values. We can have confidence knowing that when necessary, we can safely incarcerate offenders for life.
Ohioans, whether they support or oppose the death penalty, should take notice that one of the greatest critics of capital punishment is the same man who once supported it and worked to make it law.
The reasonable course of action for state officials is to begin to have serious and thoughtful conversations about whether Ohio’s death penalty remains necessary, fair and effective. My experience tells me that our justice system can be even more effective and fair without Death Rows and the death penalty.