Jurors Find Difficulty with Prospect of Handing Down Death Sentences

Ohio’s Franklin County (Columbus) has been experiencing a steady decline in death penalty indictments and death sentences as jurors are increasingly choosing sentences of life in prison without parole and prosecutors are seeking fewer death sentences. In a recent capital case, the judge had a difficult time finding jurors who would likely follow state law and consider a death sentence. One prospective juror, a 36-year-old truck driver, explained that while he favors the death penalty, he would have a hard time handing down a death penalty verdict because, “It would haunt me for the rest of my life.”

Judge Stephen L. McIntosh excused him, along with 22 others from the 72-person jury pool, because of their attitudes about capital punishment. One prospective juror that remained in the pool, answered after many rounds of difficult questioning that she felt capable of following the state’s laws on capital punishment sentencing. Later, the judge’s bailiff found her crying in the jury room over her struggle with the issue. Judge McIntosh noted, “This isn’t easy. I think it would be difficult for me as well.”

Frederick Benton, the defense attorney in the case under consideration, said that the mixed feelings of potential jurors are typical. “Sometimes, even with the staunchest advocates for the death penalty from a philosophical standpoint, when you ask if they could put pen to paper and sign a verdict for death, they say they couldn’t do it,” he said.

The steep decline in the use of the death penalty has been partially attributed to a new law took that took effect in 2005 allowing the prosecution to seek a sentence of life without parole without pursuing the death penalty. A Columbus lawyer, Terry Sherman, added, “Death-penalty cases are arduous, long, expensive, and the appeals go on forever. The state and the victim’s families often are satisfied with life without parole. Now they can get there without a death-penalty indictment at trial.” Judge McIntosh added, “The trial is probably going to take four or five weeks as opposed to [the] two weeks,” if it wasn’t a capital trial. There have been no death sentences in the county since 2003.

(J. Futty, “Death-penalty cases in Franklin County becoming rarer,” The Columbus Dispatch, November 3, 2008). See Sentencing and Costs.