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Over Easy: Ohio Legislators Seek to Enact Death Penalty Reforms

Death Penalty

This week, the Death Penalty Information Center reports that lawmakers in Ohio are seeking to enact death penalty reforms in four bills. Specifically:

  • Execution of defendants with severe mental illness would be prohibited.
  • An indigent defense fund would be established.
  • Crime labs and coroners would have to be “certified.”
  • Convictions based solely on jailhouse snitch testimony would be prohibited.

In the case of ‘progress not perfection,’ these proposals make sense, but it does give one pause to reflect on the concept that such bills are even necessary. Can someone really be convicted and sentenced to die based on shoddy or straight-forward bogus crime lab work? The answer, unfortunately, is yes. How about fact-free jailhouse snitch testimony? Is that sufficient? Apparently it is.

Paul Pfeifer, a senior Justice on the Ohio Supreme Court, originally pushed to have the death penalty reinstated back in 1981. He has changed his view. Coining the phrase “death lottery,” he says:

 “I really think it’s time to shake it up and have life in prison without the possibility of parole, to have that be the ultimate penalty available to juries. It is more of a death lottery instead of something that is evenly applied across the state. The correct thing to do is take it off the books.”

The Death Penalty Information Center reports on the status of the death penalty in Ohio since 2003:

Since 2003, Ohio has removed 20 inmates from death row through exonerations, clemency, or sentence reductions because of intellectual disabilities. An additional 5 men who had once been on death row, but had their sentences reduced when capital punishment was struck down in the 1970s, were also exonerated and released. Ohio’s executions are currently on hold until at least 2016 because of problems with lethal injection. In recent years, several Ohio officials who once supported capital punishment have spoken out against it.

On the subject of crime labs, as long as they remain self-governed arms of law enforcement and prosecution, there will continue to be wrongful convictions, and the innocent will be less likely to win the ‘death lottery,’ especially if they are poor or mentally ill. In Washington DC, just to take for random recent example, the US Attorney, amazingly enough, has removed all of its DNA cases to outside independent laboratories. The DC crime lab DNA section is now under investigation after, in at least one case, an analyst thought it would be pretty cool to report that DNA on a gun in a felony case “could be” the defendant, when, in fact, the DNA result excluded the defendant as a possible source of the DNA on the gun:

D.C. prosecutors have stopped sending DNA evidence to the city’s new state-of-the-art crime lab after they said they discovered errors in the way analysts determined whether a sample can be linked to a suspect or a victim.

Prosecutors have hired two outside DNA experts to review 116 cases, including rapes and homicides, and have been notifying defense attorneys.

In one federal case, prosecutors said, the D.C. lab concluded that a defendant’s DNA could have been on the magazine of a gun seized as evidence. But an expert who reviewed the data said the lab should have interpreted the results to mean that the defendant was not the source of the DNA.

In other cases, prosecutors said, the lab either understated or overestimated the likelihood that a particular person’s DNA was left at a crime scene.
There is no excuse for this type of false reporting of any result, DNA or otherwise. But until crime labs in the US are subject to CLIA regulation, as are US clinical and hospital labs, marginally competent lab techs will continue to falsify tests, falsify results, or otherwise lie under oath to get a conviction, any conviction, even if it is wrongful and even if it leads to an eventual execution.

In short, Ohio is on the right track, but when lawmakers suggest that a lab be “certified,” the passing public needs to ask: “Certified by whom, and what does that mean?”

Creative Commons photo courtesy of (Lance Page / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, dog ma) on flickr.

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