Sunday, September 10, 2000

Death penalty process remains slow and unsteady

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Ohio courts have sent 200 people to death row over the past 19 years.

        But the state has executed only one person in that time, and that one only because murderer Wilford Berry wanted to die.

        While the remaining 199 inmates pursue their appeals in court, a national debate over executions and the justice system has grown.

        • Questions and concerns over executions in Texas have hounded Texas Gov. George W. Bush's campaign for president.

        • In Illinois, Gov. George Ryan suspended executions after 13 death row inmates' convictions were reversed over the past two years. The state has executed 12 death row inmates since the death penalty was reinstated there in 1977.

        • In June, two Columbia University professors released a study showing critical courtroom errors led to reversals in nearly seven of every 10 death sentences nationwide.

        Still, opinion polls continue to show strong support, as high as 66 percent, for capital punishment in Ohio and across the nation.

        Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, however, questions whether anyone on the state's death row actually will be put to death.

        “If you look at the state of Ohio, there are a lot of things that aren't working out the way it was envisioned,” Justice Pfeifer said, noting the near 20-year spans between some living death row inmates and their crimes.

        “I don't think anyone is near an execution,” he added.

        Ohio is not alone when it comes to delays in executions. Two-thirds of the death penalty appeals filed in the United States were successful, according to the Columbia study.

        Professors James Liebman and Jeffrey Fagan looked at 4,578 appeals filed by death row inmates from 1973 through 1995 and found most of the trials were so seriously flawed they had to be done again. This led the researchers to declare the nation's capital punishment system is “collapsing under the weight of its own errors.”

        In Illinois, Gov. Ryan's spokesman, Dennis Culloton, said a special commission is examining potential reforms to the death penalty process in Illinois after a Chicago Tribune investigation uncovered frequent prosecutorial misconduct and negligent or incompetent defenses in death penalty cases.

        “We want to say with moral certainty that only the guilty will be executed in Illinois,” Mr. Culloton said.

        Some of the toughest questions Mr. Bush fields on the campaign trail concern Texas' death row, which will execute about one person every week until the November election.

        Much of the controversy surrounded the June execution of Gary Graham, who was convicted for killing a man in a holdup outside a Houston supermarket.

        No physical evidence tied Mr. Graham to the death of 53-year-old Bobby Lambert. A sole witness to the crime who identified Mr. Graham has never wavered.

        Where Hamilton County's death penalty cases are concerned, a co-author of the Columbia University study said he's not surprised the Ohio Supreme Court has criticized prosecutors 14 times in 12 years.

        “Nothing that prosecutors do in their zeal to obtain a death penalty surprises me,” Professor Jeffrey Fagan said.

        Justice Pfeifer and Hamilton County prosecutor Mike Allen said the questions about those 14 death sentences are much different from those posed nationally. Concerns over what a prosecutor says in court, for example, are far from an overall question of guilt or innocence.

        “Generally, of the (cases) they brought us, my sense is the facts have been hard — really just awful people committing the ultimate crimes,” Mr. Pfeifer said of Hamilton County prosecutors.

        Madge Burton, an Oxford resident who is still dealing with the stabbing deaths of two daughters and a granddaughter 15 years ago, says she thinks anti-death penalty groups and defense attorneys are getting more credit than they deserve.

        “One of the things they've used is they are so frightened that an innocent man will be put to death,” Ms. Burton said. “I've been dealing with this (case) for 15 years now, and I have no doubts.”

Clouded cases
Criticized cases
- Death penalty process remains slow and unsteady

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