Ohio Black Churches and Legislative Black Caucus Join Push to Abolish the State’s Death Penalty

Building on what they describe as growing momentum to end capital punishment and greater awareness of racial justice concerns, a coalition of Ohio African-American church and legislative leaders are putting their weight behind bipartisan legislation to repeal the state’s death penalty.

In a May 18, 2021 press conference at the state capitol in Columbus, the Ohio Council of Churches and the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus called on the legislature to pass House Bill 183 and Senate Bill 103, death-penalty abolition bills that were introduced in February with sponsorship from both Republicans and Democrats. Linking the death penalty to historical patterns of racial oppression and lynching and emphasizing its continuing disproportionate impact upon communities of color, the Black Caucus announced that death penalty repeal legislation will be its top priority of the 2021–2022 legislative session.

Caucus Vice President State Rep. Juanita Brent (D – Cleveland, pictured) said that both bills are attracting increased support among Republicans but carry special significance for the Black community. “It’s disproportionately affecting African American communities,” Brent said. “This is not how we need to address and deal with justice.”

Brent criticized the death penalty as an ineffective public safety policy. “Death penalties are not deterring people from crimes, if it was like that then we would have no one doing crimes,” she said. “People having access to affordable housing, making sure people have access to public transit, jobs that pay a living wage. That’s what deters crime, not the death penalty.”

Rep. Stephanie Howse (D – Cleveland) emphasized how wrongful use of capital punishment has accentuated racial injustice. “The district I represent falls within Cuyahoga County, which has the appalling reputation for the second most wrongful death sentences in the nation,” Howse said. “Of the six innocent men that were sent to death row from Cleveland, five of them were Black. We can no longer ignore that Black lives are consistently devalued by a justice system that should idealize fairness and accuracy. I am proud to stand with my colleagues today as we call for an end to capital punishment in Ohio.”

Rev. Dr. Jack Sullivan, Jr., executive director of Ohio Council of Churches, called the death penalty “ethically bankrupt.” “Executions add fire to fire,” Sullivan said. “They exacerbate the cycle of death and force the state to surrender its moral and ethical high ground as it lives in a clear and present contradiction, saying on one hand how much it values lives while on the other hand canceling lives through executions.” Sullivan’s sister was murdered in 1997, and the crime remains unsolved. While he said he hopes for justice in his sister’s case, he does not support the death penalty. “Executions don’t show we’re tough on crime. They just show we are people who are capable of killing,” he said, “which puts us in the same orbit as those who are convicted of the crimes themselves.”

The effort to abolish Ohio’s death penalty comes at a time in which public sentiment is already moving away from the practice. The state has not carried out an execution since 2018, as a result of problems with its lethal-injection protocol, and Governor Mike DeWine has said he believes no executions will be carried out as long as the current protocol is in place. In January, the state banned the death penalty for people who were severely mentally ill at the time of the offense. That bill, the first of its kind in the nation, passed with strong bipartisan support, as well as the backing of mental health advocates. A poll conducted in fall 2020 found that a majority of Ohioans (51%) support replacing the death penalty with life without parole.


Joe Pagonakis, In-Depth: 2 Ohio bills look to end state’s death penal­ty, News 5 Cleveland, May 18, 2021; Andrew Welsh-Huggins, Black faith lead­ers, law­mak­ers, push to end death penal­ty, Associated Press, May 18, 2021; Jackie Borchardt, Ohio Legislative Black Caucus makes abol­ish­ing the death penal­ty a top pri­or­i­ty, Cincinnati Enquirer, May 18, 2021; Geoff Redick, Abolishing Ohio death penal­ty is top pri­or­i­ty” for state­house Black Caucus, WSYX, Columbus, May 182021.