DAYTON — The number of prisoners on Ohio’s death row is decreasing as new death sentences are outnumbered by inmates who are executed or die from other causes or are freed through clemency or appeals.
Ohio courts handed down just three new death sentences in 2012, while there were three death row inmates executed last year, another died in prison and one had his death sentence vacated, the Dayton Daily News reported. Two inmates received clemency and life sentences from Gov. John Kasich and one was released on appeal because of prosecutorial misconduct in his case, leaving the number now on death row at 142, down from 204 in January 2003.
Nationwide, there were 77 new death sentences in 2012, according to the Death Penalty Information Center of Washington, D.C. That compares with the record 315 new death sentences U.S. courts handed down in 1996. Ohio’s three new sentences in 2012 were down from the record 24 in 1985.
Experts attribute the drop in recent years in the number of new death sentences in Ohio and other states with capital punishment to various factors, the newspaper reported.
Ohio Public Defender Tim Young said those factors include “evolving societal values” and a change in “the idea of what ‘the worst of the worst’ is.”
Also, the option of life without parole gives prosecutors more options in charging defendants and negotiating plea deals and gives juries the option of ensuring that killers are taken off the streets permanently without being executed. The cost to the public of prosecuting and defending death cases also is becoming harder to justify amid tighter budgets, and more survivors of murder victims feel life without parole allows for quicker “closure” than a death sentence that involves years of appeals, Young said.
Michael Gmoser, the prosecutor in southwest Ohio’s Butler County, said there’s no question that the death penalty is used more rarely than in the past.
The law has become more specific about what is required for a death verdict, and prosecutors with tight budgets and limited staffing are being more selective about seeking the death penalty, he said.
Gmoser said he and his assistants carefully review the facts of every potential new death case to determine the likelihood of a death sentence.
The call on whether to seek the death penalty is “probably the most serious and important decision I ever make in this office,” he said. “The case has to shock the conscience of this community.”
Ohio juries have had the option of sentencing defendants to life without parole in death penalty cases since 1998, and prosecutors have had the option of seeking life without parole instead of the death sentence since 2005. Previously, life with the possibility of parole in 30 years was the harshest punishment short of death.
The option of life without parole keeps killers off the streets and is a strong punishment, without the costs and “seemingly never-ending” appeals involved in death cases, Gmoser said.
“As far as society is concerned, that person might just as well be dead,” he said.