In the December 2021 episode of Discussions with DPIC, Death Penalty Information Center Deputy Director Ngozi Ndulue interviews State Representative Jean Schmidt (pictured) about her work as a primary sponsor of a bill in the Ohio House of Representatives that would abolish capital punishment in the state. A long-time Republican elected official, Rep. Schmidt also served in the U.S. House of Representatives for ten years. She avidly supported the death penalty early in her career but now is an advocate for criminal justice reform. Ndulue and Schmidt discuss the Republican party’s and Schmidt’s own evolving views on capital punishment, its myriad economic and emotional costs, mistakes in the criminal legal system, and public safety. Says Schmidt, “the death penalty is creating more victims than the crime itself.”

Schmidt and Ndulue talk about eroding public support for the death penalty. The rise of media critical of capital punishment has made the public more aware of its social consequences, Schmidt said, encouraging prosecutors to less frequently seek capital punishment. She sees a similar movement away from the death penalty within the Republican party. Cost is a major factor, as the fiscally conservative choice is abolition, but Schmidt sees the issue transcending partisanship. “This is a human rights issue,” she insists. “And if we value life, and many conservatives are pro-life, then how do you dissect the death penalty from that?” Polls indicate that 48% of Ohio Republicans approve replacing the death penalty with life in prison, while only 37% disapprove. Schmidt calls the poll results a promisng indicator that “the majority of Republicans want to end the death penalty.”

In addition to the financial costs, Schmidt noted that crime victims face “an emotional cost that we need to recognize” when participating in capital trials and appeals. The representative expressed empathy for family members and prison guards who regularly interact with death-row prisoners and are emotionally affected by their loss. “The social cost, the emotional cost when they leave death row can be very telling on those guards,” explains Schmidt. She ultimately believes that life in prison would be an adequate alternative to the death penalty. “Putting them away for the rest of their life [in] a prison system that is not a country club by any stretch of the imagination. I think it is a fair and just punishment.”

Schmidt has long considered herself to be pro-life, but believed earlier in her career that those who committed “horrendous crimes” were “exceptions” to the sanctity of life. It was only after meetings with prison exoneree Tyra Patterson and death-row exoneree Joe D’Ambrosio that she saw that executions did not serve as a deterrent, but instead allowed a mistake-prone system to impose an irrevocable punishment. In Schmidt’s view, proposing regulations or laws to prevent innocent people from incarceration cannot work in a legal system that often prevents justice from being served to defendants. Schmidt and Ndulue discuss Anthony Apanovitch, who spent 33 years on death row and was freed in 2015 when a court vacated his conviction because of exculpatory DNA evidence. In 2018, he was returned to death row because of a technicality in Ohio law that required him to request the DNA testing. “Because he messed up that appeals process,” says Schmidt, “we may never get another swing at the bat. That’s what’s wrong with the system.”

Schmidt’s views also changed as she grew concerned about marginalized groups facing inadequate trials. While racial biases affect trials, Schmidt says that “it is also a socioeconomic failure” of the state to fail to provide defendants with fair trials. Defendants who cannot afford their own lawyer must rely on a public defender, who, Schmidt explains, “might be a brilliant individual, but they’re constrained by their own small office, the fact that we pay them up to $60 an hour… And the fact that they have to ask permission for expert witnesses, that they’re constrained by an artificial $25,000 amount of money to do the case.”

Schmidt speaks at length to the disparities in pay and legal autonomy between the prosecutor and public defender’s offices. The former is consistently better staffed, better paid, and rarely willing to admit mistakes in court cases. “We have a problem with the legal system,” says Schmidt, “[where] there is no accountability for prosecutors or detectives, who withhold evidence [or] malign issues.”

Ultimately, Schmidt sees her work on the abolition of capital punishment as a way to make communities safer while ensuring justice for all parties. Instead of multiple decades languishing on death row, prisoners will be able to face the consequences of their crimes for the rest of their natural lives. The only impact of removing the death penalty will be that prisoners will have to “come to terms with themselves and God”, which can lead to character development that an execution would have denied them. And in the event that there has been a wrongful conviction, Schmidt is satisfied knowing that life in prison provides an opportunity for the defendant to receive justice. “As long as they have a pulse,” concludes Schmidt, “we can give them the right that they deserve to have a life that’s free.”


Discussions with DPIC pod­cast, Republican State Representative Jean Schmidt on Her Efforts to Abolish the Death Penalty in Ohio, Death Penalty Information Center, December 22021