A new Texas? Ohio's death penalty examined
Published: Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Updated: Friday, June 15, 2012 23:06
The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity will be hosting a panel discussion titled "Perspectives on Ohio's Death Penalty," Saturday. The event will be in Saxbe Auditorium in Drinko Hall from 2 to 4 p.m. One of the panelists, Andrew Welsh-Huggins, recently published a book on the death penalty in Ohio, called "No Winners Here Tonight: Race, Politics, and Geography in One of the Country's Busiest Death Penalty States." He took some time to be interviewed by The Lantern.
The Lantern: Your short "about the author" lists you as a reporter for the Associated Press in Columbus. How did your work as a reporter lead you to write the first comprehensive study of the history of the death penalty in Ohio?
Andrew Welsh-Huggins: This was an issue that had always interested me, and back in 2002 I proposed to the AP that we do a study of the death penalty in Ohio. They agreed that it was a subject that had never been fully analyzed and encouraged me to push forward. The result is a book that I think most people will perceive as an anti-death penalty book, but one that I believe has appeal for people on both sides of the issue. Opponents of the death penalty will find in my book more reasons to oppose the death penalty, while proponents will find ways that the capital punishment system could be changed to make it both more fair and a stronger institution.
TL: The subtitle of your book, "Race, Politics, and Geography in One of the Country's Busiest Death Penalty States," may be a surprising title for many readers, as it is not widely realized that Ohio has one of the most active death chambers in the U.S. Can you tell us how Ohio's use of the death penalty compares with other states?
AWH: What took people by surprise was that Ohio executed seven people in 2004, making us the second-highest executor that year, only after Texas, the perennial leader. In the next few years, Ohio often had the second or third busiest death chambers and seems to always be in the top five. Right now there are already four people scheduled to die.
Ohio generally has the most executions in what we call the northern states. Southern states like Texas and Virginia and Georgia are usually the states associated with the death penalty, and for good reason, they usually are among the top-executing states.
TL: One of the issues that invariably come up in debates and discussions about the death penalty is the impact of race. How does race play a role in deciding who receives the death sentence in Ohio?
AWH: Well, traditionally many people consider the death penalty to be discriminating against minorities. And the death penalty does discriminate, but in a different way than most people think. As I have well documented in my chapter on race, it is the race of the victim that produces the greatest disparity. A defendant charged with killing a white person is significantly more likely to be sentenced to death than a defendant charged with killing a black person. Less important is the race of the perpetrator.
TL: Geography is an issue that goes largely ignored in the media's coverage of capital punishment, yet it is one of the main topics in your book. What impact does geography have on the death penalty?
AWH: Basically, if you're living in a conservative county, you are more likely to have more death sentences than if you are living in a liberal county. The two classic examples in Ohio are Hamilton County and Cuyahoga County. Hamilton executes more people each year than any other county, while Cuyahoga indicts 30 or 40 people a year on capital charges but puts relatively few people on death row. I have argued for years, though some prosecutors disagree, that if you take two identical crimes - say a clerk killed during a robbery - one in Hamilton and one in Cuyahoga, the perpetrator of the Hamilton crime is much more likely to be put to death.
The population of a county also comes into account. Typically, a capital case is very expensive for a multitude of reasons. Smaller counties with smaller budgets are less inclined to go for a death sentence and more likely to attempt a plea bargain, though it is difficult to get any county prosecutor to say this.
TL: You note that New Jersey repealed the death penalty in 2007, Nebraska ended the use of the death penalty in practice in 2008, and in March, New Mexico abolished the death penalty. Do you see an end to the death penalty soon in Ohio?
AWH: I don't see it ending any time soon, though I could imagine a time in the distant future when Ohio finds it prudent to abolish the death penalty. What I think you will see in Ohio is a continuation of the trend of what you're seeing now. Ohio will continue having four or five death sentences a year and we will see fewer and fewer people being executed. It is more likely that Ohio will see its death penalty system dwindle away rather a sudden abolishment.
TL: Where can students get a copy of your book?
AWH: The book will be available in paperback at the event on Saturday. It is also widely available on the Web or you could request it at the local Barnes & Noble or Borders.
Travis Schulze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.