After Decades Of Support For Capital Punishment, Some Suggest Attitudes Might Be Changing

Oct 12, 2015

Walkers on the final leg of their journey from the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville to Columbus.
Credit Karen Kasler

Ohio is among 31 states with the death penalty, and the state has had some high-profile problems with executions in the last few years. And some are suggesting that attitudes on the death penalty might be starting to change. Statehouse correspondent Karen Kasler reports.

State Route 23 south of Columbus is no road for walking. Cars whiz by along with semis, 18 wheelers and many other kinds of trucks. But walking north facing the southbound traffic was a small group, all clad in bright red t-shirts that bore the message “Stop Executions Now”.

“These trucks are moving and moving,” said one of the walkers, Sam Reese Sheppard. “We’ve been fortunate that the truckers – we salute them as they come by, as they move over. And I think we have a little bit of respect back and forth, which is important, you know?” Sheppard and the other nine walkers in this group are on their last day of a week-long walk to Columbus from the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, where executions are carried out. Sheppard’s mother Marilyn was murdered in her Bay Village home on the shores of Lake Erie west of Cleveland in 1954 – his father, Dr. Sam Sheppard, was convicted of killing her in a bizarre circus of a trial that featured salacious rumors, rampant misconduct and a huge wave of gawkers and celebrity journalists. Sheppard was a small child then, but remembers it well. “The newspapers said ‘State Asks Death for Dr. Sam’. I was seven years old. I started dreaming about being executed myself. I started dreaming about my dad being executed. I still do,” Sheppard said.

The US Supreme Court blasted the “carnival atmosphere” of Dr. Sam Sheppard’s trial when it overturned his conviction – Sheppard was retried and acquitted in 1966, but the rest of his life was difficult. His family’s tragedy is part of the reason Sam Reese Sheppard has joined the opposition to capital punishment, not only in Ohio but nationwide.

And he’s not the only figure who has connections to crime and the prison system who’s become outspoken about the death penalty. As the walkers have moved north from Lucasville, they’ve welcomed new members as others have left the group. And they’ve hosted evening programs to talk about the death penalty. Terry Collins spoke at the program in Chillicothe. He’s the former head of the state’s prison system and was also the warden at Lucasville. “As I reviewed the death penalty and the 32 executions I witnessed, I wondered – did the system get it right?” Collins said. He has concerns about fairness of the system – about the disparity between urban and non-urban areas, among races and socio-economic status. A study from an anti-execution group has shown that most people on Ohio’s death row are people of color, are poor and come from Cleveland or Cincinnati. And that’s not Collins’ only worry: “I have concerns about the victims of crime and the staff who have to deal with performing the executions.”

Among other state officials who’ve spoken out on capital punishment – another former prisons director Reggie Wilkinson, former attorney general Jim Petro, and current Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer, who actually helped write the state law on capital punishment. For many years, those who campaigned against executions were a small and quiet group, while the majority of Americans and Ohioans told pollsters they favored capital punishment, and elected lawmakers who supported the death penalty.  But now polls are showing there’s an almost even split among those who support executions for murderers and those who favor life in prison. But Petro and Pfeifer are among the few Republicans who’ve advocated to end the death penalty. Till now - Rep. Niraj Antani (R-Miamisburg) joined his very Democratic colleague Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood) to present the bill, which he says fits into his overall conservative point of view. “When it comes to being pro-life – which I am from conception until natural death – it is the conservative thing to do,” said Antani. “When it comes to advocating for smaller government, it’s the conservative thing to do. Giving the government the power to execute you is not, to me, an appropriate function of government.”

Antani says he thinks the tide is turning among conservative lawmakers, who dominate both the House and Senate. Though his bill to abolish the death penalty has no Republican co-sponsors, Republicans are supporting bills that would overhaul the death penalty and ban executions for the mentally ill. Seven states have abolished the death penalty in the last decade – most are solidly Democratic states, but the most recent one, Nebraska, is solidly Republican.