July 26, 2014

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Prosecutors push changes to Ohio death penalty law

COLUMBUS — Lawyers representing death penalty clients would have to extensively document their time and track their reasons for calling or not calling particular witnesses, under prosecutor-backed proposals being heard today by a committee reviewing Ohio’s death penalty law.

Any inmate claiming he had bad legal assistance during a trial would have to include such information on appeal, according to the proposals.

Ohio law also should be changed to allow attorney-client privilege to be waived in cases where inmates allege poor legal aid “to allow full litigation of ineffectiveness claims,” according to the proposal.

Defense attorneys on the committee oppose the proposals, including another one that would call for efforts to remove any hurdles to “a speedy resolution” of death penalty cases in the state.

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor convened the task force last year while making clear it won’t debate whether the state should have the death penalty.

Ohio enacted its current death penalty in 1981 and it has largely survived any major constitutional challenges. The state resumed executions in 1999 and has put 49 men to death, with another execution scheduled for next month.

The committee has been meeting about once every two months to consider a variety of changes to the state’s death penalty law, from DNA testing to crime lab certification to training for judges who would oversee capital cases.

The Supreme Court could implement some of the final recommendations, while others might require changes to state law. There’s not a hard deadline for a final report.

Another prosecutor proposal before the committee Thursday would allow currently prohibited testimony from surviving victims and family members about the impact of a killing.

Ohio law now requires juries to weigh specific aggravating factors — such as whether the victim was a child or a police officer or was killed during a robbery — against factors in the offender’s favor, such as a poor childhood or mental illness.

The proposal would allow for other factors, including statements from family members, a defendant’s criminal record and any evidence of posing a future danger.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled victim-impact statements constitutional, and they are used in federal death penalty cases.

It was unclear whether the committee would vote on the prosecutors’ proposals Thursday or at its next meeting in April.

O’Connor, a Republican and a former prosecutor, appointed judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, prison officials and death penalty experts to the committee. She has said the committee’s goal is to produce a fair, impartial and balanced analysis of the state’s 3-decade-old law.