Death Penalty Indictments and Sentences Decline In Ohio

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There is an execution scheduled nearly every month this year in Ohio for a death row inmate. Convicted murderer Clarence Carter was put to death Tuesday. The following day, two state lawmakers introduced legislation to abolish the death penalty. This comes at a time when prosecutors are seeking the death penalty less and less. In recent months, Central Ohio has seen two particularly horrific murder cases. Matthew Hoffman killed two Mount Vernon women and an 11-year-old boy and dismembered their bodies. Samuel Littleton killed his girlfriend’s daughter and an elderly couple from Bellefontaine.

Despite each killing three people, and one killing a child, neither Hoffman nor Littleton faced the death penalty. Instead they plead guilty in exchange for sentences of life in prison with no chance of parole. It’s a scenario that is happening more and more frequently in Ohio.

If the murders had occurred six years ago, prosecutors could not have sought life without parole without first pursuing a capital murder case. A 2005 law now makes that possible. That’s on top of a 1996 law which gives juries the option of choosing life-in-prison over execution.

“It does give prosecutors and defense attorneys another option and it gives juries another option,” said Knox County Prosecutor John Thatcher.

Thatcher struck the plea agreement with Matthew Hoffman, who killed the women and the boy.

“I think it’s more likely than not that juries since 1996 have come to the right result when they have the option, and have come back with death verdicts as opposed to life without parole verdicts,” he said.

Since the law changes, there have been sharp declines in death penalty indictments and sentences. Indictments have declined 24 percent. And death sentences by more than half.

Andrew Welsh-Huggins is a legal affairs reporter for the Associated Press and wrote a book on the history of Ohio’s death penalty. Welsh-Huggins said he thinks it’s clear juries like to have an option other than death.

“I think what the effect it’s having, though, is the type of individual that’s being sentenced to death now by juries say is probably closer to what lawmakers envisioned 30 years ago, what they call the worst of the worst,” Welsh-Huggins said.

While it’s ultimately up to prosecutors to decide which punishment to seek, death or life, victims’ families carry some weight on the decision. Thatcher used the plea bargain to convince Hoffman to tell police where he hid the victims’ bodies. And Thatcher said he explained to the victims’ families that a death penalty case and the appeals process can last more than a decade.

“For them I think there were a number of reasons that made the life without parole option what they wanted, and on the day they made that decision it was: they wanted to recover their loved ones,” he said.

Thatcher said he would have pursued Hoffman’s execution if the case took place 15 years ago.

Logan County Prosecutor Gerald Heaton said he, too, would have pursued a death penalty case against Samuel Littleton.

“We wouldn’t want to go down to a life sentence because then, after 20 years or 25 years or 30 years, it would be up to the parole authority as to whether or not he got out of jail. So we would have been forced pretty much because of the type of crime it was to go to trial,” Heaton said.

Because of the changes in Ohio law, some have argued for a review of all death penalty cases, especially those sentenced to die before 1996.

Ohio Public Defender Tim Young said he thinks there should be a complete review of all of the death row cases.

“Of all of those people on death row that we’re currently executing, the vast majority, if indicted today, either wouldn’t be indicted with death or they would be given LWOP even if they were indicted with death,” Young said.

Young predicts within ten years Ohio will no longer have a death penalty. Writer Andrew Welsh-Huggins disagrees, but he predicts a significant decline in the death row population over the next few decades.

“There’s just fewer people being indicted on death penalty charges, and there’s fewer people being sentenced to death. So ultimately it’s going to become a very small, but continuing part of our legal system,” Welsh-Huggins said.

And in tight budget times, there’s the cost issue. Studies have shown that trying death penalty cases and housing death row inmates is up to three times the cost of inmates serving life sentences.

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