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February 15, 2018

A county-specific look at the death penalty in Ohio ... and wondering if anyone is taking a country-specific look at LWOP

I just noticed this lengthy new article from the Cincinnati Enquirer headlined "Why is a murder trial here so much more likely to end with a death sentence?".  I recommend the piece in full, and here is some of the "who" coverage:  

Hamilton County has sent more people to death row and is responsible for more executions than any county in Ohio since capital punishment returned to the state in 1981. The county has a larger death row population per capita than the home counties of Los Angeles, Miami or San Diego. And it has more people on death row than all but 21 of the more than 3,000 counties in the United States....

“There’s no question Hamilton County is and definitely was a conservative county,” said Andrew Welsh-Huggins, the author of “No Winners Here Tonight,” a book about capital punishment in Ohio. “A conservative county is going to elect conservative prosecutors, and they’re going to take their cues from that,” he said....

No politician in town is more closely identified with the death penalty than Joe Deters, the latest in a long line of Hamilton County prosecutors who have regularly sought capital murder charges.

Deters said he tries to answer the same questions before every murder trial: Is the accused eligible for the death penalty under Ohio law? Does he have the evidence to remove all doubt of innocence? Was the offense so terrible the defendant deserves to die?

If the answer is yes on all counts, he seeks a death sentence. Not because he relishes the thought of an execution, Deters said, but because that’s what the law dictates. “People in really bad cases want the death penalty,” he said. “There are certain cases that are so hideous they are just evil.”...

Victims’ relatives often feel [killers deserve to die], but it’s up to the prosecutor to decide how aggressively to pursue the ultimate punishment. Deters said he has, in some cases, sought the death penalty even when relatives asked him not to, because the law and the facts of the case demanded it.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the approach of local prosecutors is the single biggest factor in whether a convicted killer ends up on death row. In some places, he said, “the death penalty appears to be part of the culture.”

An Enquirer analysis of data from Dunham’s group found Hamilton County's death row population ranks 22nd out of the 647 counties nationwide that have at least one person on death row. Among U.S. counties with 20 or more inmates on death row, Hamilton County ranks seventh per capita.

What’s happened here over the years is part of a broader trend that has seen death penalty cases become highly concentrated. Less than 1 percent of U.S. counties now account for 40 percent of all death row inmates.

One reason for that disparity is the growing number of states, now 19, that have banned the death penalty. Another is the uneven application of death penalty laws by the prosecutors elected to enforce them. A county with a strong death penalty proponent, such as Deters, might send killers like Tibbetts or Van Hook to death row, while a prosecutor in another county might be content to seek life without parole, or less.

Franklin County, about 100 miles to the north, has a larger population and more homicides than Hamilton County, but less than half as many inmates on death row with 11. Cuyahoga County, also more populous and more violent than Hamilton County, has 21 death row inmates. “The law is prosecuted differently depending on who is the elected prosecutor,” said Welsh-Huggins. “Your chances of going to death row depend on where you committed the crime.”

Geography will continue to matter for years to come in death penalty cases, and not just close to home in Ohio. Death rows in Texas and the Deep South remain crowded places, while those in the Northeast are smaller or nonexistent....

Hamilton County has seen a decline in death sentences, too, as jurors increasingly recommend sentences of life without parole instead of death. The option, which eliminates the risk of a killer one day walking free, has fundamentally changed the calculus of capital trials. "That has impacted death sentences across the country," said Abe Bonowitz, spokesman for Ohioans to Stop Executions. "If you can guarantee the guy is never getting out, why do you have to kill him?"

Sometimes, though, juries and judges still find a reason. Ohio's life without parole law didn't exist when Van Hook was convicted in 1985, but it was on the books when Tibbetts went on trial in 1998. His Hamilton County jury recommended the death penalty anyway.

Deters said that’s fine with him. He said he can't worry about what other prosecutors do or whether Hamilton County is sending more people to death row than other counties. He said the solution for those who do worry about it is simple. “If people don’t want the death penalty, I don’t care,” Deters said. “Pass a law and get rid of it.”

For a lot more information about executions by county, here is a lot of information from the Death Penalty Information Center.  And for a big report on death sentences by counties, here are Part I and Part II of a big recent report titled Too Broken to Fix: An In-depth Look at America’s Outlier Death Penalty Counties.  

As the title of this post highlights, in addition to encouraging you to think about all this county-by-county examination and analysis of the death penalty, I am interested in whether you can help me find any county-by-county analysis of LWOP sentences.   The "Too Broken to Fix" report notes than "in 2015, juries only returned 49 death sentences" and that only 33 counties of 3,143 counties in the US imposed the sentence. Can anyone help me find any estimate of how many total LWOP sentences were imposed in 2015 (or any other calendar year)?  Can anyone help me find any county-by-county accounting of LWOP sentence in Ohio or anywhere else?

February 15, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Death penalty history, Scope of imprisonment, Sentencing data | Permalink


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