On Tuesday, the Death Penalty Information Center released a new report that connects Ohio’s racial history to the modern use of the death penalty in the state. Broken Promises: How a History of Racial Violence and Bias Shaped Ohio’s Death Penalty documents how racial discrimination is the throughline that runs from the state’s founding to its application of capital punishment today.  

The report notes that Ohio’s Black Laws, adopted in the early 1800s, made race a critical element of the state’s legal system. Ohio’s 1807 “Negro Evidence Law,” for example, prohibited Black people from testifying against white people in court. This created a double legal standard; white Ohioans were permitted to victimize Black people with no legal consequences so long as there were no white witnesses willing to testify on the Black victims’ behalf. Ohio’s other Black laws instituted racial restrictions on jury service. Modern studies find that jury discrimination persists.  

DPIC’s review of modern death sentencing statistics reveal a continued emphasis on race in Ohio’s capital punishment system. An analysis of race of victim data for all 465 modern death sentences in Ohio found that 75% of death sentences were for cases with at least one white victim. For context, 66% of murder victims in the state are Black. The disparities become more pronounced when factoring in a victim’s gender. While 44% of Ohio’s murder victims are Black men, just 13% of death sentences involved at least one Black male victim. A separate study found that homicides involving white female victims are six times more likely to result in an execution than homicides involving Black male victims. 

The report also features multiple stories of Black capital defendants who faced overt racial discrimination during their trials. For example, Malik Allah-U-Akbar’s attorney hired a defense expert who diagnosed Mr. Akbar with antisocial personality disorder. The expert falsely testified at trial that “urban” Black males are substantially more prone to antisocial personality disorder and that “the best treatment for antisocial…is to throw them away, lock them up.” Mr. Akbar’s attorney later reiterated this false narrative, stating “[t]his isn’t a situation you can treat. … You have to put him out of society until it runs its course.”  

“Two centuries ago, race was a critical factor affecting whether prosecutors sought the death penalty and whether someone was executed in our state, and race still influences many death penalty decisions today,” said Tiana Herring, DPIC’s Data Storyteller and the lead author of the report. “This can’t be squared with the reasonable expectation that Ohioans have to be treated equally by our legal system.”