COLUMBUS, Ohio - The death penalty might be on life support in Ohio.
Lawmakers continue to consider two separate bipartisan measures that would make life in prison without the possibility of parole the harshest sentence available under state law.
Family members of murder victims pushed for the repeal of capital punishment in Ohio at a hearing for House Bill 183 last Monday.
The House Criminal Justice Committee convened for its fourth hearing on the bill Thursday.
The legislation was introduced in March by Rep. Adam Miller (D-Columbus) and Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Miami Twp.) after Governor Mike DeWine declared an unofficial moratorium on executions, stating lethal injection is no longer an option for Ohio executions.
HB 183 and Senate Bill 103 (SB 103) are identical, companion bills that would repeal Ohio’s death penalty. SB 103, led by primary sponsors Sen. Steve Huffman (R-Tipp City) and Sen. Nickie J. Antonio (D-Lakewood), is currently in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“It is 2021. It is time to end the death penalty,” Miller said when he introduced the bill. “Apart from moral, ethical and spiritual reasons to oppose capital punishment, the carrying out of executions raises significant concerns on who is sentenced to death and how that sentence is carried out. It is long past time Ohio joins the global community in ending the death penalty.”
In 1997, Rev. Jack Sullivan’s sister was murdered, a crime that remains unsolved. Still, he believes that capital punishment should be abolished in Ohio. Sullivan provided testimony at last Monday’s hearing.
“Stop assigning murder style points and numerical values to help society make sense of the nonsense of the death penalty,” he said. "[The death penalty] cannot be mended. It must be ended.”
If death penalty abolitionists are successful, they will then strive to eliminate life in prison without the possibility of parole, says Lou Tobin, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the death penalty is at least three times more expensive than other sentencing options. The organization estimates that death-penalty trials cost Ohio taxpayers as much as $16 million per case.
Only the voters of Ohio and not state legislators should be permitted to ban the death penalty, Assistant Trumbull County Prosecutor Chris Becker believes.
He says lawmakers have “eroded and shrunk the penalties for the worst offenders” over the last 30 years by implementing measures like reduced penalties for felons who use weapons to commit crimes and decreased prison time for parole violators.
“The Ohio Legislature should be actively seeking ways to implement and use the death penalty in the State of Ohio on the most heinous of criminals sitting on our death row like Donna Roberts, Nathaniel Jackson, Danny Lee Hill and others,” Becker said.
In 2001, Roberts and Jackson were sentenced to death for murdering Roberts’ husband. They remain in prison.
Hill was sentenced to death for the 1985 rape, torture and murder of 12-year-old Warren boy scout Raymond Fife. A federal appellate court upheld Hill’s sentence in August.
Warren, the Trumbull County seat 14 miles northwest of Youngstown, saw a record-breaking murder rate last year, Becker pointed out, adding that HB 183 is not needed and not wanted by Ohioans.
“To those that say capital punishment is not a deterrent, it is not meant to be a deterrent. Neither are the rape, robbery or burglary statutes. Those laws are intended to punish the violent and destructive members of our society,” Becker explained. “The death penalty is the ultimate penalty for the ultimate crime and should only be repealed by a vote of the electorate of the State of Ohio.”
Miriam Fife is Raymond’s mother. Now 81 and living in Cortland, she favors a recent initiative from the South Carolina legislature.
“You know that if they can’t get an [execution] drug, they are going to let the inmates choose between the firing squad and the electric chair. I kind of like that solution,” Fife said.
Fife also said she has called multiple Ohio legislators to recommend the South Carolina option for Ohio’s death-row inmates but has not received a response.
Huffman once echoed a similar feeling about capital punishment, but no longer.
“Like so many Ohioans, I once supported capital punishment and, over time, with prayer and reflection have come to believe it’s the wrong policy for the state of Ohio,” Huffman said. “Human life is precious. It’s not the role of the government to end the life of the citizens.”