Why area Republicans sponsored bills to abolish Ohio’s death penalty

A death chamber at the Southern Ohio Corrections Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
A death chamber at the Southern Ohio Corrections Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

The Republican state lawmakers from southwest Ohio sponsoring bills in the Ohio House and Senate to end the death penalty both say they represent society’s changing views on capital punishment.

Both state Sen. Stephen Huffman, R-Tipp City; and state Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Loveland, say they previously supported the death penalty. Now they have concluded it’s imperfect, unfair, expensive and incompatible with pro-life views.

House Bill 183 and Senate Bill 103 both would abolish the death penalty and generally require someone convicted of aggravated murder to be sentenced to life in prison.

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Huffman said his opposition to the death penalty followed “a lot of reflection and prayer.”

“There’s one being that should judge (a) life and that’s God. It should not be us to put them to death and be the judge,” he said in an interview this week.

In sponsor testimony when the bill was submitted, Huffman also noted the cost of the death penalty. He referenced a 2014 Dayton Daily News investigation that found Ohio’s death penalty system costs the state about $16.8 million a year, and incarcerating inmates for life is considerably cheaper than executing them.

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“Ohioans’ taxpayer dollars would be better spent pursuing constructive, positive policies that enhance the quality of life in our local communities,” he said.

Huffman and Schmidt also noted that multiple death row inmates have been exonerated, meaning there is a chance of innocent people being put to death. And the death penalty is applied inconsistently based on where the crime was committed and the demographics of the inmate.

“We recognize that people that are of color, people that have less means, tend to end up on death row moreso than people with means or higher education,” Schmidt said in an interview this week.

The bill wouldn’t have any impact on those already on Death Row, though it’s unclear when or if their executions will be carried out. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine last year said the current lethal injection method isn’t viable after a federal judge ruled that it caused “severe pain and needless suffering.”

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The last execution in Ohio was in 2018, before DeWine took office. He pushed back executions scheduled this year to 2024. The governor’s office declined to comment for this story.

There are currently 133 people on Ohio’s Death Row. This includes seven from Montgomery County, five from Butler County, four from Clark County and two from Greene County.

Louis Tobin, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said his organization intends to oppose the legislation.

“We think there’s still a place for the death penalty in Ohio, for the worst of the worst offenders,” he said. “We don’t think repeal is what the people of Ohio want.”

Tobin argued that it’s the defense attorneys and death penalty opponents who drive up the cost with endless appeals, and the governor has the ability to commute sentences if there’s major concerns about someone’s guilt.

As for the equity issue, he said focusing on the race of the inmates ignores the race of the victims and their families, who are often minorities.

So far, only proponents of the Senate bill have testified. This has included the Ohio Public Defender, the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, the Ohio Council of Churches and the Catholic Conference of Ohio.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.