On December 14, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer (pictured) testified before the state’s House Criminal Justice Committee, urging lawmakers to overturn the death penalty law he helped write as a state senator 30 years ago.

Justice Pfeifer said, “The death penalty in Ohio has become what I call a death lottery,” citing factors such as the location of the crimes and the attitudes of individual county prosecutors as variables affecting whether the death penalty is pursued in a given case. He continued, “It’s very difficult to conclude that the death penalty, as it exists today, is anything but a bad gamble. That’s really not how a criminal justice system should work.”

As a sitting justice, Pfeifer has continued to issue decisions in death penalty cases and to set execution dates under the law. Of his role, he said, “I have a duty under the law to follow that law. At the same time, we are admonished under the rules that apply to judges that we have a duty to step forward and advocate for changes we think would lead to an improvement in the law.”

Among others testifying at the hearing on a bill to repeal the death penalty was Dale Johnston, who spent seven years on death row for the murder of his daughter and her boyfriend. The state Supreme Court overturned his conviction, and another man is now serving a life sentence for the crimes. Johnston noted that, like many people, he supported the death penalty before his wrongful conviction. “I never imagined that I or another innocent man could be on death row, but it happened to me. If it happened to me, it could happen to anyone.”


J. Provance, Ohio jus­tice urges repeal of death penal­ty, Toledo Blade, December 152011.