Almost all of the 26 men scheduled for execution in Ohio over the next three years suffer from mental, emotional, or cognitive impairments or limitations that raise questions as to whether they should have been sentenced to death, according to a new report released August 30 by Harvard’s Fair Punishment Project. While the U.S. Constitution requires that the death penalty be reserved for the worst crimes and the worst offenders, the report—Prisoners on Ohio’s Execution List Defined by Intellectual Impairment, Mental Illness, Trauma, and Young Age—says that, instead, these prisoners “are among the most impaired and traumatized among us.” The report says Ronald Phillips, whom Ohio executed July 26, was “19 at the time he committed his crime, had the intellectual functioning of a juvenile, had a father who sexually abused him, and grew up a victim of and a witness to unspeakable physical abuse – information his trial lawyers never learned or presented to a jury.” It says at least 17 of the 26 other condemned prisoners Ohio seeks to execute between September 2017 and September 2020 experienced serious childhood trauma, including “physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, and exposure to serious violence”; at least 11 have evidence of “intellectual disability, borderline intellectual disability, or a cognitive impairment, including brain injury”; and at least 6 “appear to suffer from a mental illness.” Jessica Brand, the Project’s Legal Director, describes what has happened in these cases as a “horrible trifecta” in which “people who are the most impaired received some poor representation at some time in their cases and then are facing the most severe penalty possible.” The Ohio Alliance for a Mental Illness Exemption from the death penalty, which is supporting an Ohio bill seeking to ban the use of capital punishment against the severely mentally ill, issued a press statement in which they noted that two of the prisoners are so mentally ill that they should be categorically exempted from the death penalty. A Death Penalty Information Center review of Ohio’s 2017-2020 scheduled executions shows that more than 60% of the execution warrants are directed at prisoners who were sentenced to death before Ohio had adopted its life-without-parole sentencing option and jurors had to weigh the death penalty against the risk that a prisoner would be released back into society. Mirroring trends repeated across the country, death sentences fell dramatically in Ohio when the state amended its death-penalty law to make life without parole available as a sentencing alternative. Death sentences dropped by 2/3rds in the state over the next decade, from an average of 12.7 per year to 4.3. The data suggests that juries would likely have treated evidence of intellectual disability, mental illness, or behavioral problems arising from chronic abuse and trauma very differently if they had assurances that the defendants would not later be released if sentenced to life.

DPIC has launched a new webpage dedicated to the scheduled executions in Ohio, examining how geography, race, and sentencing alternatives played a role in these cases. Two-thirds of the death sentences were concentrated in just three of Ohio’s 88 counties, and those three counties were among the 2% of U.S. counties responsible for more than half of all prisoners on death rows across the country. Of the 27 men who have been or are scheduled to be executed, 14 are white and 13 are black. All 14 white men were condemned for killing white victims, whereas 38% of the black men (5 of 13) were condemned for interracial murders of white victims. At least one of the black prisoners—James Frazier—was condemned to death in Lucas County in 2005 by an all-white jury, even though its largest city, Toledo, is more than 25% black. In Frazier’s case, the prosecutor used peremptory strikes to remove 2 of the 3 black people in the panel of 44 prospective jurors.

For DPIC’s Analysis of the Ohio Death Warrants, read our new webpage, Ohio Executions Scheduled for 2017-2020.