The debate over Ohio’s death penalty laws is heating up, just as Butler County
is about to try its 2nd capital case in less than a year.
A “random” act of violence ended the life of an elderly Middletown man last
May. His alleged killer, Victor Gantt, faces a possible death sentence, when
his trial begins on Tuesday.
In the last 5 years, Butler County has had 8 cases that qualified for the death
penalty. Most recently, a jury spared Hector Alvarenga-Retana’s life after his
murder trial last November. He was convicted of killing of 2 rival gang
members. Warren County hasn’t had a death penalty case since 2008, after Michel
Veillette murdered his family in Mason. He committed suicide in jail before the
case went to trial.
Leroy Jones’ life was cut short when Victor Gantt allegedly attacked him,
beating the 75-year-old man to death with an ax. The act was completely random,
police said, with Gantt breaking through a glass door, attacking Jones and then
trashing the house.
Assistant Prosecutor Brad Burress says because the murder occurred while Gantt
was allegedly robbing and burglarizing Jones, the case qualifies as a capital
Butler County Prosecutor Mike Gmoser declined comment on the Gantt case.
Ohio has become a focal point because one of the senior members of the Supreme
Court, Justice Paul Pfeifer — who helped draft the first constitutional death
penalty laws in the state — has publicly opposed the death penalty. Now
Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters has asked the justice to recuse himself
in all death penalty cases and any case from his jurisdiction. Pfeifer has made
comments about the large number of death row inmates that hail from Hamilton
Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor’s task force that’s studying the
death penalty in Ohio sparked the war of words between Pfeifer and Deters.
Pfeifer testified recently before a state House Criminal Justice Committee on a
bill that would abolish the death penalty and has commented widely in the media
about the issue. Deters is a member of O’Connor’s task force.
Pfeifer headed the Senate Judiciary Committee two decades ago and says he has
always been troubled by the final compromise he had to make on the death
penalty law then. He wanted to give juries the option of sentencing a defendant
to life without possibility of parole, instead of life with parole eligibility
after 20 or 30 years. The other side of the legislative fence said no.
The legislature has amended the statutes to include the sentencing option of
life without parole, which Pfeifer says negates the need for the death penalty.
Pfeifer has pointed out that Hamilton County has the most residents on death
row in the state with 29. By contrast, Butler County has 7 men on death row,
and Warren County has a single resident there. He says some aggressive
prosecutors are finding ways to turn some murders into capital crimes. Adding a
kidnapping charge if the defendant pointed a gun at his victim is a way to
qualify a case as a capital crime, he said. He said the fact that the death
penalty isn’t uniformly applied in the state is also an issue.
“Joe Deters takes a very tough-minded approach on these things... Not every
murder qualifies for the death penalty. But if it does qualify, he takes the
position we’re going to go to trial and we’re going to try to get the death
sentence,” the justice said.
He also added it is “grossly unfair” that probably half the people sitting on
death row went there before juries were allowed the option of imposing life
without parole instead of death.
3 men have gone to death row on Deters’ watch, so far. In a letter to the
editor, Deters said between 1981 and 2010 his county “only indicted” 162 on
capital charges, compared to 497 and 1,215 in Franklin and Cuyahoga counties
respectively. Deters has called on the justice to recuse himself in capital and
Hamilton County cases.
“Justice Pfeifer’s continued participation in deciding death penalty cases is
inappropriate. It gives rise to a credible inference that he cannot be fair to
both sides,” he wrote. “His false public criticisms of me indicate he has
absolutely no business sitting in judgement of cases from Hamilton County.”
Pfeifer said the court considers recusal requests on a case-by-case basis and
he will continue that practice.
“There is a huge difference between advocating the law and applying the laws
that exist,” Pfeifer said. “He knows that I know the difference.”
Deters did not return phone calls.
(source: The Oxford Press)