Study Finds Most Ohio Death-Row Inmates Are Impaired

(CN) – A new report finds that most, if not all, of the 26 Ohio prisoners scheduled to be executed over the next three years have significant impairments that limit their legal culpability and may preclude them from the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment.

Those impairments include mental illness, intellectual disabilities, severe childhood trauma and being under the age of 21 at the time of their offenses.

The report was prepared and released Wednesday by Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project, or FPP, a nonprofit that says it’s committed to ensuring a fair and accountable justice system through legal action, public discourse and educational initiatives.

FPP’s interest in Ohio was sparked earlier this year when the state ended a three-year moratorium on executions and scheduled 27 executions to be carried out between 2017 and 2020, a number that FFP Legal Director Jessica Brand described in a phone interview as an exceedingly high number of executions to perform over such a short period of time.

The first of those executions took place on July 26, when the state used a three-drug cocktail of midazolam, rocuronium bromide and potassium chloride to kill 43-year-old Ronald Phillips, who was sentenced to death in 1993 for the rape and murder of his girlfriend’s 3year-old daughter.

Phillips embodied several of the impairments FPP addresses in its report.  He was 19 at the time he committed the crime, had the intellectual functioning of a juvenile, had a father who sexually abused him, and grew up a victim of and witness to unspeakable abuse, according to the report.

“The Constitution mandates that the state restrict the use of the death penalty to only those ‘whose extreme culpability makes them the most deserving of execution,’ regardless of the severity of their crimes,” the report states.  “The individuals here have been convicted of horrible crimes, and they must be held to account.  But the evidence suggests that Ohio has not met its constitutional obligation.  It is instead planning to execute nearly two dozen individuals with substantial impairments, rather than reserving the punishment for those with the greatest culpability.”

In its report, FPP examined the cases of the 26 remaining Ohio inmates whose executions have been scheduled, relying on available legal proceedings, court opinions and trial testimony.

The group found that at least 17 of the 26 men sentenced to death had experienced serious childhood trauma in the form of physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect or exposure to serious violence.

FPP also found that at least six of the men on Ohio’s death row suffer from a mental illness and at least 11 show signs of intellectual or cognitive impairment.

In addition, three of the men were under the age of 21 at the time they committed their crimes, “a period during which an individual’s brain, especially the section related to impulse control and decision-making, is still underdeveloped,” according to FPP.

“Our research suggests that the 26 individuals that Ohio intends to execute each suffer from some combination of severe mental illness, intellectual disability, serious childhood trauma from physical and sexual abuse, or were young adults with impaired judgment when they committed their crimes,” the report concludes.  “The Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of society’s most vulnerable and limits its imposition to the most culpable in our society. Unless the governor or a court intervenes, over the course of the next two years, Ohio is poised to violate that constitutional limitation by scheduling the executions of nearly a dozen individuals with devastating impairments.”

FPP is a joint initiative of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute, the Accountable Justice Collaborative at the Advocacy Fund and The Bronx Defenders.

The project is supported by a number of individual and institutional donors, including the Open Philanthropy Project and Vital Projects Fund.

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