Jim Petro questions about death penalty stop short of calling for repeal
It's been a year since former Ohio Attorney General and 2006 gubernatorial candidate Jim Petro laid out his views of the criminal justice system in his book, "False Justice: 8 Myths that Convict the Innocent."
Co-authored by his wife, Nancy, the book, as the title implies, questions the fairness of our justice system and identifies flaws in how police and prosecutors handle evidence, especially in capital cases.
I was recently drawn to the book because capital cases and the procedures we use to put people to death continue to make news here and around the country. While reading the book, I kept wondering what feedback Petro, a moderate Republican who campaigned on strong law-and-order platforms, has received, especially from politicians and law enforcement officials.
Petro, who is now Ohio's higher education chancellor, told me in an interview that he's received little push back and plenty of support and praise for the book, which also examines how DNA evidence has played a critical role in exonerating convicted people and highlights the unreliability of eyewitness testimony.
"I would bet certainly well over half the prosecutors in the country looking at this book would ultimately agree with most of the issues," he says. "There is another half who wouldn't. They will say this is the work of some liberal-leaning lefty. That's not the case. I am as much in favor of punishing the guilty as anybody, but I'm advocating for a greater degree of care on the part of every prosecutor."
Reading the book, I was most intrigued by the question of whether Petro thought society should repeal the death penalty in light of wrongful convictions. Though the book is written in memoir form, he doesn't explicitly offer his opinion.
"Establishing the reliability of the justice system is equally important for advocates of the death penalty," he writes early in the book to neutralize the debate around the death penalty issue.
He touches on the issue again in Chapter 19, describing his support for the death penalty as simple and pragmatic.
"It is all about public safety," he writes.
But I wanted to know what the man, not the politician, thinks about the controversial issue.
Petro, a former Cuyahoga County commissioner from Rocky River, is a politician closer to the issue than many. He had a hand in writing the 1981 law that restored Ohio's death penalty. As a young legislator in the Ohio House in 1981, he was on the Judiciary Committee that reviewed and reworked the legislation started in the Ohio Senate.
In December, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer, who also helped write the law that year and supported it, urged lawmakers to repeal it. Pfeifer, a Republican, told an Ohio House of Representatives committee, "The death sentence makes no sense to me at this point when you can have life without possibility of parole. I don't see what society gains from that."
Pfeifer, who was chairman of the Ohio Senate's Judiciary Committee in 1981, was testifying in support of House Bill 160, which would abolish the death penalty in Ohio and resentence death-row inmates to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The Democratic-sponsored bill has no chance of passing.
When Petro campaigned for the state legislature, he said he believed in the death penalty. And when he supported the 1981 bill, he argued that the government should not bear the expense of incarcerating the most heinous criminals when they deserve to die. In short, he said that he believed the state would save money by adopting the death penalty and that the law would become a deterrent.
"Neither of those things have occurred, so I ask myself, 'Why would I vote for it again?' " Petro tells me. "I don't think I would. I don't think the law has done anything to benefit society and us. It's cheaper and, in my view, sometimes a mistake can be made, so perhaps we are better off with life without parole."
But does he personally believe we should do away with the death penalty?
Unlike Pfeifer, Petro doesn't directly say so.
"We are probably safer, better and smarter to not have a death penalty," he says.
Petro adds that he still believes society has the right to decide.
He remains unequivocal, though, on a different and important point, one sometimes obscured by tough-on-crime politicians: The real responsibility of prosecution is to seek the truth, not just win a trial.
(source: Mark Naymik, The Plain Dealer) Found on Death Penalty News & Updates -- posted by Dr. Rick Halperin