As a state legislator in 1981, Jim Petro (pictured) supported a bill to reinstate Ohio’s death penalty after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the state’s previous capital punishment statute. Later, as Ohio Attorney General, he supervised 19 executions in the state. Since then, his views have changed and he recently co-authored an op-ed in the Columbus Dispatch urging the legislature to repeal the state’s death penalty.

In the April 2021 episode of the Death Penalty Information Center podcast Discussions with DPIC, Petro speaks with DPIC Senior Director of Research and Special Projects Ngozi Ndulue about how learning about wrongful convictions and the high cost of the death penalty changed his opinion on capital punishment. The interview is the first in a new series of DPIC podcasts on Rethinking Public Safety. This series will feature interviews with public officials in various public safety fields discussing the evolution of their views on capital punishment and how their professional experiences influenced their thinking.

Issues of innocence and government fallibility played a major role in the evolution of Petro’s views on capital punishment. During his tenure as Attorney General, he was involved in the exoneration of Clarence Elkins, wrongfully convicted of rape and murder and sentenced to life. Elkins was subsequently exonerated by DNA evidence that cleared him and identified the actual perpetrator. Petro called Elkins’ case “the most eye-opening experience of my life,” and told Ndulue that it inspired him to support legislation to reduce the chances of wrongful convictions and to work pro bono for the Ohio Innocence Project.

“In my years as a state legislator, as state auditor, as the Attorney General of Ohio, I always wanted to make sure that government was doing things right, that we weren’t functioning in a fashion that made a lot of mistakes,” he says. “And so when I learned that the justice system was prone to error, I really wanted to continue to do whatever I could to make that better.” Before the Elkins case, he says, “I never really thought that the system would fail so miserably as to convict and incarcerate for many years a person absolutely innocent of the crime.” He continued looking into the issue and co-authored a book, False Justice: Eight Myths That Convict the Innocent, exploring the causes of wrongful convictions.

In the podcast, Petro describes his early assumptions about the accuracy of the system and how they changed. He supported the death penalty as a state legislator, he says, because “[a]t that time I didn’t even suspect that when death penalties were handed down, it actually could have been in error. And I presumed that the system so tightly handled the risk of an error, that a conviction error in a death penalty case, it’s almost impossible to imagine. I later began to learn that that was not the case.”

Petro contrasts his assumptions with his understanding of the system now, after decades more experience: “The recognition that I have now that, you know, in the great scheme of things, the criminal justice system does make mistakes that are not corrected on appeal. There are factual mistakes, and they result in wrongful convictions. In spite of the fact that the case is appealed all the way up, even that may not change things. And so, if that is true — which I believe it is — then there are individuals who have been executed who are totally innocent of crimes. I’m sure of it.”

Petro and Ndulue also cover the questions of deterrence and costs. Petro says his experience as a prosecutor showed him the death penalty does little to affect crime. “I don’t think the death penalty is a deterrent for violent or serious crime,” he states. He says he believes that the cost of the death penalty has been a major driver of changing public opinion. “So often, voters would say to me, ‘Well, the death penalty is good, because you know, I don’t want to keep them in jail for all those years and have to pay for them.’ And I would have to explain to them, it’s much cheaper to keep a convicted criminal who is convicted of a serious, maximum penalty offense. It’s much cheaper to keep the keep them in prison for life, than to go through the process, ultimately executing them.”