Although published six years ago, this volume by Andrew Welsh-Huggins remains a valuable examination of the national debate about capital punishment, using Ohio as a case study. With an accessible writing style and solid research, the author, an Associated Press reporter on Ohio’s death penalty beat, deftly uses representative cases to humanize and provide context for the legal and ethical debates around the death penalty, including the variety of arguments for and against it. Welsh-Huggins concludes that despite numerous efforts in recent years to decrease its unpredictable execution, “capital punishment is carried out unevenly not only in Ohio, but across the country” (3-4).
The author begins with a history of the death penalty both in Ohio and nationally. Throughout the nineteenth century, governors, legislators, and the public often questioned capital punishment and the ways in which it was carried out, a debate that continued into the twentieth century. Indeed, as late as 1949, the Ohio House voted 69 to 35 to repeal capital punishment. This bill died in the state senate, however.
Nevertheless, after 1963, a virtual moratorium on capital punishment developed in Ohio as a number of challenges to it wound their way through the state and federal court systems. In 1967, federal court decisions led to a national moratorium. In 1971, the Supreme Court, by a 5 to 4 vote, found in Furman v. Georgia that Georgia’s death penalty statute and by extension, statutes throughout the United States violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. This emptied death rows across the country. However, only two of the justices in the majority found the death penalty unconstitutional on its face. The other three justices in the majority found death penalty statutes unconstitutional because they resulted in uneven and unpredictable application of capital punishment. States then attempted to craft death penalty laws that would pass constitutional muster and in 1976 executions resumed after the high court approved death penalty statutes in Florida, Georgia, and Texas. In Ohio, executions only resumed in 1999 as ongoing challenges delayed executions. Since then Ohio has become, in the words of the book’s title, “One of the Country’s Busiest Death Penalty States.”
Despite rewritten laws, the unpredictable implementation of the death penalty has persisted. As the title to the book notes, this capriciousness has been largely due to “Race, Politics, and Geography.” Numerous statistical studies clearly show that the race of the killer and the victim both have powerful influences on who is executed. Killers of whites, especially African Americans, are far more likely to end up on death row than killers of blacks, regardless of race. Proponents of the death penalty agree that this may be racist, but that the cure is to prosecute killers of blacks more effectively. Opponents argue that racism is so endemic that fair imposition of the death penalty is impossible. For its part, the Supreme Court has decided that statistical evidence of the extent of racial prejudice is insufficient by itself to bar capital punishment in individual cases. Moreover, the court has argued that barring the death penalty on statistical evidence would inevitably bring into question convictions for a wide array of crimes and bog down the whole justice system in the U.S.
Welsh-Huggins also shows that geography can have a profound impact on whether a killer will face the death penalty. Prosecutors in Ohio’s three largest counties, Cuyahoga, Franklin, and Hamilton, seek the death penalty at much different rates. Hamilton County, with its ardently pro-death penalty prosecutor, has the largest number of convicts on death row. Prosecutors in the other counties seek the death penalty at lower rates. Although opponents of capital punishment cite such wide variations as an argument against it, supporters argue that differing community standards are an inherent right of local communities. Moreover, they argue that the failure of some prosecutors to consistently seek the death penalty may mean that some criminals are getting away with murder. Prosecutors, for their part, argue that where evidence is weak, plea bargains resulting in non-capital sentences may be the only way to take killers off the streets. Moreover, they point out that persuading killers to plead guilty to non-death penalty charges can protect witnesses or families of the victims from distress surrounding trials.
As controversy over the death penalty has grown, legal challenges have caused lengthy delays between sentencing and execution. Indeed, in many states and at the federal level, lawmakers, executives, and judges, responding to public pressure, have sought to shorten the appeals process by placing restrictions on it. Moreover, governors have found that granting clemency or commuting death sentences can result in political backlash to such an extent that in Ohio and many other states both Republican and Democratic governors have increasingly refused to grant commutations and then only if there is some indication that the case against the condemned is severely flawed.
Welsh-Huggins does note that recent changes in Ohio law apparently have to a decreased imposition of capital punishment. These changes permit prosecutors to obtain sentences of life without parole for capital crimes. Previously they had to choose between capital punishment and sentences with the possibility of parole.
For those wanting to explore the issue of capital punishment, Welsh-Huggins’s book provides a solid foundation. Some may want to pursue the debate more deeply in academic, legal, and research institute studies, but this book is a valuable introduction for the interested public and for secondary and post-secondary classes and its extensive notes provide additional sources for further inquiry.
Charles F. Casey-Leininger
Department of History
University of Cincinnati