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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

10-03 Columbus Dispatch

By: Dennis Mahoney

* The Columbus leg of "Journey of Hope" -- from Thursday through Oct. 12 -- will include a daylong conference for religious leaders and presentations to several central Ohio congregations. A rally, preceded by a worship service at Broad Street United Methodist Church Downtown, is scheduled for 1 p.m. Oct. 11 at the Statehouse. For details, go to

Like many other death-penalty opponents, Sister Alice Gerdeman never stops believing that someday executions will end in Ohio. But the battle, the Roman Catholic nun acknowledges, brings both good days and bad.

"There's always an ebb and flow," she said. "While there's at times a spur of energy and there's lots of hope, and then it diminishes a bit, I'm never discouraged by that."

Gerdeman, director of the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center in Cincinnati, is president of Ohioans to Stop Executions, a statewide group that has been pushing to repeal the death penalty since 1987.

The organization is among the groups and individuals involved in "Journey of Hope," a two-week blitz of about 120 events throughout Ohio that will culminate Oct. 11 in Columbus with a Statehouse rally.

Fostering discussion about the death penalty is a continuing challenge that opponents must meet, the event's organizers say.

Because public support for the death penalty remains strong, even those involved in the movement struggle to sustain an active interest, said Tom Smith, public-policy director for the Ohio Council of Churches.

"There's still a sense out there that we're not close enough to making this thing happen to put a lot of time in on it," he said.

"Until we get to the point where we're at least almost 50-50, and people see there's a real shot to make this thing go away, I think it's always going to be that way."

Death-penalty opponents are making progress, though, said Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking and a speaker at some Journey of Hope events.

Executions nationwide have dropped since peaking at 98 in 1999, she noted. There were 85 in 2000, 66 in 2001 and 71 last year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
The option of a life-without-parole sentence now available in many states has contributed to the decline, said Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun who lives in New Orleans.

But opponents must "keep augmenting and relentlessly doing public discourse" if they're going to win the fight.

Strong public support

According to a Gallup Poll in May, 74 percent of Americans support execution for murderers. The figure compares with 67 percent in 2000 and 76 percent in 199L

The poll also asked respondents whether they'd favor execution or life imprisonment without parole for a murderer, if given the choice. Fifty-three percent chose execution; 44 percent, a true life sentence.

John Murphy, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said the public views the death penalty both as a deterrent and as 'Just deserts" for criminals.

"There continues to be strong support for it in cases where we have these horrible fact patterns people doing intentionally outrageous things, killing people over a few dollars in the cash register, or killings that don't seem to have any rhyme or reason to them at all," Murphy said.

Since 1999, Ohio has executed eight inmates, including three this year.

But Ernest Martin, 42, a killer from Cleveland who died by injection June 18, might be the last person put to death this year in the state.

On June 26, Gov. Bob Taft commuted the death sentence of Jerome Campbell of Cincinnati, and a court halted the July 24 execution of Richard Wade Cooey of Akron.

In addition, the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling outlawing executions of the mentally retarded has prompted dozens of appeals on behalf of Death Row inmates who contend that they are mentally retarded.

No execution dates are pending.

But the situation is more a matter of circumstances than a legal shift, said Ohio Public Defender David A. Bodiker.

The number of death sentences being issued in Ohio courts is rising again, Bodiker said, after nose-diving for a few years on the heels of a law change that permits a sentence of life without parole.

Eight death sentences have been imposed this year, compared with nine in 2002, six in 2001 and four in 2000.

Although innocent people at times have been sentenced to death, Murphy said Ohio's record is largely good. Cases are "prosecuted well and defended well, and we get the right person for the right offense."

The state is not immune from prosecution errors, though. Earlier this year, two men -- Gary Lamar James and Timothy Howard -- were freed from prison after new evidence showed that they did not kill an East Side bank guard in 1976. James and Howard had been on Death Row before their sentences were commuted to life in prison in 1978.

Murphy scoffed at the notion of imposing a moratorium on executions in Ohio -- as the governor of Illinois did in 2000.

Given the public's support for the punishment, he said, state legislators aren't likely to be pressured into voting to repeal it.

Different viewpoints

Gerdeman attributes Americans' continuing support for the death penalty to a national environment of fear brought about by crime as well as concern about another terrorist attack.

Contrasting views of the issue often result not from a lack of moral values, she said, but from different perspectives.

"There are people who feel they have to protect their families, and that certainly is a very moral perspective to have," Gerdeman said. "And out of that need for self-protection or the protection of the people they love, they may come to one conclusion to view such issues as the death penalty.

"There are others who may look at the whole perspective of life, and the respect for life and who gets to take life and what is the best way to make our society a caring, safe society. And they may come from a very different perspective."

Lori Shaw, professor and dean of law students at the University of Dayton, thinks that some death-penalty opponents might support execution for some crimes were they confident that the judicial system is applying the punishment fairly.

Polls can be misleading, she noted.

"If you ask someone, 'Do you support the death penalty?' there may be people who say yes to that. But if you say, 'Should someone who committed murder while a juvenile be executed?' I think you get a little bit different response."

Generally, Shaw said, Americans don't see execution as wrong in all cases.

"I think that a majority of Americans believe that retribution can be a moral thing. There are some crimes that are so heinous that execution is required and is moral."

Shaw, too, spoke of some progress being made by death-penalty opponents.

The punishment is becoming more restricted, she said, with the Supreme Court prohibiting the execution of the mentally retarded and some states, including Ohio, outlawing the death penalty for minors.

She could envision a system in which the death penalty is reserved for the most serious crimes and the burden of proof is higher than the current "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard.

But if opponents are to make future progress, they must sway public opinion -- a difficult task, Shaw said.

"I don't think the average person spends a lot of time pondering the death penalty because it just doesn't impact on their life."

Facts and figures* Executions resumed in the United States in 1976, 13 years after they were halted by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Since then, there have been 876 executions nationwide, including three by the federal govemment.* Ohio's death penalty was declared unconstitutional in 1978 but reinstated in 1981.* Ohio has executed eight prisoners since 1976 -- all of them since 1999, including three this year. Texas has carried out the most executions, 310.* Nationwide this year, there have been 56 executions. In 2002, there were 71.* Ten women have been executed since 1976, all during the past five years.*-Twelve states and the District of Columbia have no death penalty.