Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Yesterday we blogged about an unusual investigative report by the Associated Press that found fundamental problems with Ohio's death penalty system. Today we see that one Ohio newspaper, the Akron Beacon Journal, has renewed its push for the Ohio Legislature to pass a law establishing a death penalty study commission:

Martin Frantz correctly assessed the legal landscape: ``Our criminal justice system doesn't always mete out justice and fairness in neat little packages -- sometimes it's a little rough.'' The Wayne County prosecutor knows that two defendants facing charges for the same crime often enough fare very differently. The outcome can turn on the quality of legal representation, the makeup of a jury, the temperament of the judge.

Frantz made his comment to the Associated Press as part of its three-part series of articles on the death penalty in Ohio. The thinking is that variations are expected. Yet when the punishment is death, a community, or state, has a greater obligation to seek a certain element of fairness and consistency.

The Associated Press found familiar disparities. Those defendants who killed a white person were twice as likely to receive a death sentence as those who killed a black person. Location can be a telling factor. The wire service reported that 8 percent of those charged with a capital crime received the death penalty in Cuyahoga Country. The figure in Hamilton County is 43 percent. Counties vary significantly in the resources provided court-appointed attorneys for the defense of indigent clients facing the death penalty. The gap isn't merely between heavily populated and smaller counties. The state's largest urban counties reported wide differences.

Ohio isn't alone. Other states have encountered similar trends. Illinois discovered so many flaws in its death penalty that it suspended executions. A former governor commuted the sentences of all those on death row, declaring the system arbitrary and immoral. Justice Paul Pfeifer of the Ohio Supreme Court called the Associated Press analysis ``very disconcerting and alarming.''

Pfeifer knows how to fight crime. As a state senator in the 1980s, he helped to forge legislation reinstating the death penalty. Of late, he has joined Democrats and fellow Republicans in calling for the state to study carefully how the death sentence is applied. A year ago, the Ohio House actually authorized such an assessment. The effort collapsed in the Senate.

The Associated Press reporting should spark a renewed effort. This newspaper has long advocated getting rid of the death penalty. If Ohio chooses to keep capital punishment, it has a moral obligation to be as consistent and fair as possible in its use.

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