Retire Ohio’s death penalty: Paul E. Pfeifer

January 26, 2011

By Paul E. Pfeifer
Are we, the people of Ohio, well served by our continuing use of the death penalty?

Before we try to answer that, let’s take a quick look back at capital punishment in Ohio. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Ohio’s death penalty statute unconstitutional. In 1974, our state legislature revised Ohio’s death penalty law, but the Supreme Court rejected that one as well. Then, in 1981, a new death penalty statute was enacted, and this one passed constitutional review. We didn’t resume executions in Ohio until 1999. Since then, 41 condemned murderers have been put to death; there are 157 more awaiting execution on death row.

There are very few people in this state more closely associated with the death penalty than am I. As a state senator in 1981, I helped draft our current law. Now, for the past 18 years, I have served as a justice on the Ohio Supreme Court, where we render the final judgment on death penalty appeals.
I helped craft the law, and I have helped enforce it. From my rather unique perspective, I have come to the conclusion that we are not well served by our ongoing attachment to capital punishment.

Why the change? In short, because the death penalty law is not being applied as we originally intended.

The statute that we wrote in 1981 was designed to pass constitutional review by the U.S. Supreme Court. That meant that it had to provide safeguards and extensive due process for accused murderers. We set out to enact a law that would give prosecutors the capability to seek capital punishment for the absolute worst offenders.

Murder is a vile crime. But not all murders are the same, and we did not mean for all — or even most — murderers to be eligible for the death penalty. The law was meant to be employed only when a certain set of aggravating circumstances warranted execution. But over the years, the death penalty has come to be applied more pervasively than we ever intended.

We also wanted a review process implemented in which the Ohio Supreme Court, in addition to considering death penalty appeals, would monitor death sentences across the state to verify that they were being evenly and fairly applied. Simply put, that hasn’t happened.

Thirty years ago, the public’s support for the death penalty stemmed largely from decades of sentences that seemed too lenient for murderers. The fact that a convicted killer could be eligible for parole after serving only a fraction of his life sentence did not sit well, and rightly so.

But in 2005, the Ohio legislature corrected that by passing a law that allowed prosecutors to seek a penalty of life without the possibility of parole rather than a death sentence. Since that law passed, we have seen the number of death sentences drop precipitously. Prosecutors and jurors have told us — by their actions — that life without the possibility of parole is a more desirable outcome to a murder trial than a death sentence.

Part of the reason for that, I believe, is that even supporters of capital punishment feel uneasy about sitting on a jury that votes to take a human life. As George Orwell once said, “Most people approve of capital punishment, but most people wouldn’t do the hangman’s job.”

Make no mistake — I am not arguing for leniency or sympathy. There are no good citizens on death row. These are people who have committed heinous crimes. When a villain murders, he not only ends one life, he irrevocably damages dozens of others. Murder has a ripple effect that consumes all those who loved the victim.

But life without parole now offers us a viable alternative to the death penalty, and it’s an option that can satisfy our desire to punish killers for their crimes. There are, however, dozens of inmates on death row who were convicted before that option was available. How many of them would have been sentenced to death if the life-without-parole option had been available at the time? No one knows. All we know is that there are many people who will be put to death because they were convicted at the wrong time.

So, I ask: Do we want our state government — and thus, by extension, all of us — to be in the business of taking lives in what amounts to a death lottery? I can’t imagine that’s something about which most of us feel comfortable. And, thus, I believe the time has come to abolish the death penalty in Ohio.

Pfeifer, of Bucyrus, is senior justice of the Ohio Supreme Court.

Note on Feb 9, 2011.

Now read this article by Staughton Lynd, in which he writes about judge Pfeifer (towards the end).
And this, by judge Pfeifer (2005)

Finally: Why Life Without Parole is just a prolonged death sentence:

Power to the people: A welcome prison victory in Ohio

In: SF Bay View
Posted on January 23, 2011, in: SF Bay View
by Bomani Shakur, aka Keith LaMar


This is the cast of the play “Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising” by Staughton Lynd, based on his book of the same name, when the play was performed at the Barrow Street Theater as part of the 2008 New York International Fringe Festival)

Although on a very small scale (which by no means diminishes the deed), we, the people, have wrought a revolution – “a sudden and momentous change in a situation” – and accomplished in 12 days what the powers that be have repeatedly told us would never happen. Indeed, for the first time in 16 years, I will be able to hug and kiss my family again! There are no words to express the profound gratitude I feel.

The late, great, revolutionary leader, Che Guevara, once said: “A true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love!” Well, while I cannot claim to be a revolutionary in the strict sense of the word, it is a great feeling of love – for you, the people – that is guiding me right now: Even as I write this, tears of hope and determination are streaming down my face.

When one has been forced to live in a space no larger than a closet for 16 years, 23 hours a day, not only does one begin to feel extremely insignificant, but the very world begins to shrink; and everything, even the smallest thing, seems impossible. Hence, never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined the overwhelming outpouring of love and support that came flooding into my cell after I cried out for help.

People from all over the country and the world – England, Ireland, Serbia, Amsterdam – reached out and joined together with us to right an injustice; and surprisingly, miraculously, we succeeded! Everything we demanded was properly handed over.

It would be great if I could say that the worst is over now, and that, with victory in hand, I can live happily ever after. Unfortunately, I don’t have the luxury of living in a fairy tale; the people who are trying to take my life are real, not a figment of my imagination.

In fact, not even a week after my piece, “If We Must Die,” was posted and we embarked on the hunger strike, a federal district judge turned down my appeal, which placed me even further in the balance. It would be naïve of me to believe that this was just a coincidence, an unrelated incident that just so happened to coincide with our peaceful, nonviolent demonstration.

As you may recall, I said some very harsh things – all of them true – against the system; and I say them again: This system is bogus and sold to those with money. In other words, if you don’t have the capital, you get the punishment, and justice, like everything else in this capitalist nightmare, is nothing more than a commodity that is reserved for the highest bidder. Need I say more?

Friends, I beg you not to abandon me to this mockery; inasmuch as my life is not for them to take, I intend to fight them, and I (we) need your help. What they did to us cannot stand up under the bright light of scrutiny.

Because of who we are, they felt that doing a thorough job wasn’t necessary. After all, who’s going to give a damn about a bunch of criminals? With this as their attitude, they utilized a “first-come-first-served” strategy and ended up charging several different people with the same crimes, using different theories; and, in some cases, allowed the actual perpetrators to point the finger elsewhere if they were willing to assist the prosecution in cleaning up its books.

Simply put, what they did to us is a travesty of justice; and yet, our convictions have remained intact through the lower courts of appeal and are quickly making their way through the federal courts. In other words, if we don’t do something to get out in front of this thing, they are going to kill us soon. And it may be that, no matter what we do, they are going to kill us anyway. Well, OK. But if that be the case, let us at least make sure that they not be able to call it justice. If they kill us, let us at least be able to call it what it really is: murder.

Friends, we don’t have to accept this; we don’t have to continue down the path of least resistance, allowing them to do with us whatever they please. If we stand together and speak truth to power, they will have no choice but to right this wrong. They did it in the current confrontation, and they will do it again, not because they want to but because they have to.

Whenever hypocrisy is confronted by the truth, it must capitulate. Therefore, the key to fighting these people is to expose the truth and then hold it up next to what they claim to represent. If we can do this well enough, they will either have to practice what they preach or, as Malcolm X suggests, preach what they practice. Our job is to make sure they don’t have it both ways.

Our friend, Staughton Lynd, has written a book about the uprising, “Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising,” and we need to encourage people to read it. In the coming days, weeks and months, we need to formulate plans to reintroduce the play and launch the documentary, “Dirty Little Secrets,” all with the intended purpose of making as many people as possible aware of what actually happened during the uprising and its aftermath.

Ultimately, the goal is to compose a petition, similar in scope to the ones that were recently circulated, which will then be presented to the governor with the demand that he either issue a general amnesty with respect to all of the Lucasville cases or, in the alternative, convene a panel of qualified experts to determine whether or not a general amnesty is warranted.

In closing, I want to thank each and every one of you for coming forward as you did. I am both humbled and uplifted by the support. When I phoned my 8-year-old niece, Kayla, afterwards and informed her that “Uncle Keith will be able to touch your little hand soon,” she, with excitement brimming in her voice, said, “That’s awesome!” And I couldn’t agree with her more: What we did was awesome! We came together and spoke truth to power and won! Imagine that!

Power to the people!

Bomani Shakur, aka Keith LaMar, one of three men sentenced to death following the 1993 Lucasville rebellion who went on hunger strike Jan. 3, can be reached by writing to Keith LaMar, 317-117, P.O. Box 1436, Youngstown OH 44501. This statement was posted by Denis O’Hearn to the Facebook page, In Solidarity with the Lucasville Uprising Prisoners on Hunger Strike.