Panel recommends barring capital punishment for the mentally ill

By MARC KOVAC @ohiocapitalblog C-N Capital Bureau Published:

COLUMBUS -- A state panel reviewing Ohio's administration of the death penalty has recommended barring capital punishment against those who are seriously mentally ill or in cases that rely on the testimony of jailhouse informants.

The group also wants to remove several crimes from the list of specifications used in determining whether to pursue the death penalty and require clemency hearings and parole board interviews with death row inmates to be recorded and made available to the public.

The Joint Task Force to Review the Administration of Ohio's Death Penalty's final report includes suggestions for law and rule changes that will require additional actions from lawmakers or other state officials.

The group was launched in 2011 by Supreme Court Justice Maureen O'Connor and the state bar association to analyze capital punishment in Ohio and offer recommendations for improvements in its administration.

Members on Thursday reviewed more than 50 recommendations during a meeting in Columbus, debating the format and content of the resulting report.

Among other recommendations, the panel is urging that the death penalty only be considered or imposed in cases where there is biological or DNA evidence, a confession, recorded evidence that definitively links a defendant to a crime or other factors offered by the general assembly in developing related law changes.

The death penalty, members say, should not be considered for individuals who are suffering from a serious mental illness, or permitted in cases that rely on the testimony of jailhouse informants.

The task force also is recommending removing kidnap, rape, aggravated arson, aggravated robbery and aggravated burglary from the list of capital case specifications. The reports notes that such charges "result in death verdicts 7 percent of the time or less when charged as a death penalty case."

Additional language calls for increased care in the handling, preservation and availability of biological or DNA evidence and required recordings of interrogations.

The report calls for increased review of how juries considering capital cases are instructed, including requiring written copies of judge's instructions, in plain English, and making clear the option of "extending mercy."

Another recommendation urges death penalty clemency hearings and parole board interviews with inmates to be recorded "by audio, video or court stenographer," with the results open for public review. The task force also urges that inmates' legal counsel be allowed to participate in interviews and have better access to files considered in the clemency process.

Additionally, the report calls for increased support for the families of murder victims, increased funding for the state's public defender's office and increased uniformity in the treatment of legal counsel provided to defendants.

The recommendations were not unanimously endorsed by members of the task force. Prosecutors and pubic defenders on the panel, for example, had differing views on some issues.

"There was disagreement on a number of issues," said Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien, a member of the task force.

Dissenting opinions will be compiled and released along with the final report, and some of the recommendations likely will not be supported by the Republican-controlled Ohio Legislature.

But the report drew support from the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, a frequent critic of the state's system of capital punishment.

"Even for death penalty supporters, today's recommendations should be welcome," Mike Brickner, a spokesman for the group, said in a released statement. "At the very least, Ohioans should not tolerate a system that executes people with mental illness, risks executing the innocent, and perpetuates unfair discrimination in our justice system. If Ohioans insist on keeping the death penalty, officials must do all they can to address these fundamental problems."

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