Committee recommends death penalty changes

COLUMBUS – Factors that can lead to a death penalty case, such as murders committed during robberies, burglaries or rapes, would be stripped from Ohio’s death penalty law to focus on the worst of the worst killers, under a recommendation by a task force studying changes to the law.

The proposal would limit capital prosecutions to cases involving multiple victims, killings of children younger than 13, slayings of police officers and crimes committed to eliminate witnesses, among other of the most serious factors, according to the proposal approved earlier this month by the Ohio Supreme Court committee.

Of the seven people on death row from Trumbull County, it appears as if two – Nathaniel Jackson and Donna Roberts – might have been exempt from the death penalty had these changes been in place at the time of their prosecution.

Jackson was convicted of killing Robert Fingerhut, 57, who was ambushed in his Howland home Dec. 11, 2001, after a plot was formed with his lover / co-conspirator Roberts.

Jackson was convicted of aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary and aggravated murder. Roberts was convicted of complicity to each of those crimes.

Jackson has been on death row since 2002, Roberts since 2003.

The recommendation was based on arguments that elements such as kidnapping or burglary rarely result in death sentences – and when they do, they often carry the greatest risk of racial disparity among defendants.

Numerous Ohio inmates would never have gone to death row in the past 30 years had such a rule been in place, including five of the last 10 inmates put to death.

The proposal would eliminate kidnapping, rape, aggravated arson, aggravated robbery and aggravated burglary as factors that could lead to a death penalty. The result, supporters say, is a racially neutral law that targets the most heinous criminals.

“By removing these, you not only get rid of cases that are clearly not in society’s eyes the worst of the worst, you also remove the greatest racial influence in the death penalty,” said State Public Defender Tim Young, chairman of the subcommittee that made the recommendations.

Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins, who serves on the task force, said Thursday he could not address specifics of the proposal because he was not at the panel’s most recent meeting when the recommendations were announced. He did say he is opposed to the recommendations.

“I join a number of prosecutors who are against the proposal,” he said.

The proposal’s chances are uncertain at best. Lawmakers would have to approve such a sweeping change, and it would likely face stiff opposition from death penalty supporters backed by local prosecutors.

The Supreme Court task force is scheduled to complete its work this year, meaning it would likely be 2014 before legislation could even be introduced.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor convened the task force last year, instructing it to look for ways to make the current law – enacted in 1981 – more fair, while making it clear that eliminating capital punishment was not up for discussion.

The recommendation passed 12-2, though several members weren’t present for the vote. Among those was Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, who said he strongly opposes the change.

The task force also recommended the creation of a panel overseen by the state attorney general that would have the final say on bringing death penalty charges in Ohio. That recommendation would likely face strong opposition too.