The Record Of Women On Death Row In Ohio

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Ohio is set to execute a 9th convicted man in November. That would be the most in the state since executions resumed in 1999. In all, 40 men have been given lethal injections during the past 11 years. But, Ohio has not executed a woman since 1954.

Ohio’s death row for women is in one of the dormitory buildings at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville. It has one resident. 66 year old Donna Roberts was convicted in 2003 of helping her lover kill her husband in December 2001. Authorities believe a $550 thousand dollar insurance policy was the motive. Warden Ginine Trim says Roberts follows the prison rules. She stops by a couple times a week.

“I certainly try to engage her to see how she’s doing. How is she feeling? I ask has she had any visitors. I know that she has a son and we talk about if he had recently visited how the visit was,” said Trim.

Trim says Roberts can talk with other inmates housed in the same area. An execution date has not been set because her appeals continue. In addition to Roberts’ son, a rabbi also visits regularly. She can go outside for an hour a day. I wrote to Roberts asking for an interview, but she declined

47 year old Elizabeth Green knows what it’s like to sit on death row.

“I thought I was going to die in the courtroom. I really didn’t think I would get the death penalty,” said Green.

A three judge panel sentenced Green to die for robbing and killing an elderly male drug dealer in Cinncinnati in 1988. She was 24 years old. She admits playing a role in the murder but says she was high on crack. A co-defendant struck a plea bargain and was sentenced to 12 to 50 years.

Green stands under 5 feet and weighs 130 pounds. Green is soft spoken and says she has grown up in prison after leading a destructive life.

But Green left death row in 1991 when Governor Richard Celeste commuted her sentence along with 3 other women on death row. Celeste was concerned by what he called a disturbing racial pattern in death sentencing. Celeste selected cases based on the inmates’ crimes, the fairness of sentences, mental health and IQ, and length of time served.

Green is part of the life group that includes women serving life in prison. They meet to support and encourage one another. Green has spoken to Donna Roberts about the group and encourages her to be positive because she knows what it’s like to be on death row.

“I just try to give her moral support as far as trying to continue to stay strong while she’s on death row,” said Green.

Nationally – 165 women have been sentenced to death since 1973 when capital punishment was restored. That’s only 2 percent of the total number of death sentences. In Ohio 10% of murders are committed by women, but only 2 percent receive death sentences.

Chief trial counsel of the Ohio Public Defender’s Office, Greg Myers suspects there’s gender bias on juries.

“I think what both sides know, prosecutors and defense lawyers alike is that the odds of convincing 12 jurors to vote death for a woman are much lower from the government’s perspective than the odds for convincing 12 jurors to vote death for a man,” explained Myers.

Ohio Northern University Professor of Law Victor Streib has studied the death penalty. Streib points out Ohio has only executed 4 women in its history, the last 1954. 25 year old Betty Butler, a black woman was killed by the state for strangling and drowning her black female lover at a lake near Cincinnati. That same year, 55 year old Dovie Dean, a white woman was executed after being convicted of poisoning her rich farmer husband she had married only 4 months earlier. Professor Streib agrees there is a bias.

“Prosecutors first of all are less likely to bring a death penalty charge against a woman. When they get to court we find juries are less likely to sentence a woman to death that is in cases with identical facts they probably would have sentenced a man to death. We found that appellate courts are more likely to reverse it and governor’s more likely to grant clemencies,” said Streib.

Back at the Ohio Reformatory for Women, Donna Roberts waits on Death Row. The sound of chirping birds disguises what may be a dismal reality. Some women will die here as they serve out their life sentences. Former death row inmate Elizabeth Green maintains a positive outlook. Despite her life sentence, she hopes she’ll be released someday.

“I’m very relieved I’m no longer on death row. As long as I’m alive I believe there’s always hope. I hold on to that word hope, it’s like embedded in me.” Green expressed.