Ohio prosecutor uses new approach to death penalty

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Ohio prosecutor uses new approach to death penalty

Post  NEADP on Mon Jun 23, 2008 5:42 pm

Death penalty cases were once common in Franklin County, though death sentences were not.

Without acknowledging a problem obtaining the punishment, the county's veteran prosecutor has quietly scaled back the number of capital indictments he has sought in recent years.

The county that led the state in death penalty cases in 2004, with 34, had just 3 capital cases last year, according to data collected by the Ohio Public Defender's Office.

Prosecutor Ron O'Brien, a Republican serving his 3rd 4-year term, says that in the past his office focused only on the elements that make a case eligible for a death penalty.

Called aggravating factors, those include other crimes committed during homicides, such as rape, robbery and burglary, as well as whether the victim was a child or a police officer.

Now, before deciding whether to bring a possible death penalty charge, O'Brien's office is also looking at factors that could cause a jury to show mercy, including the defendant's age, mental health, criminal background, upbringing and the strength of the evidence.

"We're looking at mitigation and the realistic possibility of getting a death sentence," O'Brien said.

The death penalty "should be and is designed to be for the worst of the worst offenders," he said.

O'Brien said his decision was influenced by his experience prosecuting Daryl Lawrence in federal court for the 2005 shooting death of Columbus police officer Bryan Hurst. A U.S. Justice Department panel weighs evidence from both prosecutors and defenders before deciding whether a case is eligible for the death penalty.

A jury sentenced Lawrence to death, but a judge ordered him resentenced because of discrepancies in the jury's decision. That ruling is pending before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

An analysis by The Associated Press of capital indictments from 1981 through 2002 found that just 5 % of death penalty cases in Franklin County ended with a death sentence.

O'Brien's more selective approach is the same used by Hamilton County for years. There, prosecutors indict few defendants with death penalty charges but take them all to trial and refuse to offer plea bargains.

The result: With 37 defendants facing execution, Hamilton County has the highest number of death row inmates of any Ohio county, or 1 in every 5 inmates.

The length of a death penalty trial, the cost and Franklin County jurors' reluctance to impose a death sentence are all likely factors in O'Brien's decision, said Gerald Sunbury, a longtime Columbus defense lawyer.

"The theory before was that the prosecutor's office felt it would be inappropriate for them to cherry pick certain cases," Sunbury said. "If it fit the statutory requirements of capital cases, they were indicting it as a capital case."

On the Net: Franklin County Prosecutor: http://www.co.franklin.oh.us/Prosecuting_Attorney/

(source: Associated Press)

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