Former Ohio Supreme Court Justice, Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, has joined the growing ranks of judges and prosecutors who now oppose the death penalty. During a briefing on June 14th for the Ohio Supreme Court task force reviewing the administration of the death penalty in the state, Stratton revealed that she now opposes the death penalty. During her 16-year tenure as a member of the court, 49 men were executed by lethal injection. Stratton retired from the Ohio Supreme Court at the end of 2012.
In an interview with the Columbus Dispatch, Stratton declared opposition to capital punishment on the grounds that it was ineffective as a deterrent and fails to achieve the closure sought by the families of murder victims. In a written response to interview questions from the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Stratton elaborated on her comments to the media by saying that the high cost, “long delays, lack of closure for [victims’] families, liberal appellate courts that would reverse for technicalities, but [then] be reversed themselves by another higher court, […] the racial inequities, and other problems” also contributed to her evolved position. She noted that the death penalty also negatively affects the prison workers tasked with carrying out sentences, an oft-forgotten detail.
Her decision to publicly declare opposition to the death penalty was shaped by her seven years as a trial judge and sixteen years as a Justice. Stratton notes one case in particular in which the defendant was already strapped in the chair when a federal judge issued a stay. The stay was later reversed and the execution proceeded, which Stratton thought seemed “cruel in and of itself.”
Stratton’s has long opposed the use of the death penalty for mentally ill defendants. In a 2006 concurrence in the case of Donald Ketterer, Stratton stated that, while she had to affirm his death sentence based on the existing law in Ohio, she wished for the Ohio legislature to create legislation that would prohibit the use of capital punishment on defendants with mental illness. She reasoned that the lack of impulse control that accompanies mental illness prevents the death penalty from effectively deterring those with mental illness from committing crimes. She also cited a Gallup poll which found that 75% of those surveyed opposed executing the mentally ill.
At the same time as Stratton’s opposition to the death penalty was evolving, the Ohio Supreme Court created a taskforce to examine the effectiveness of the state’s capital punishment law. Stratton was asked to speak to the taskforce about her concern over the inappropriate use of the death penalty on defendants with mental illnesses. She hopes that the task force’s recommendations will lead to new legislation restricting the use of the death penalty, particularly on defendants with mental illness. At the June 14th meeting where Stratton spoke, the task force announced their recommendation to decude the number of aggravating factors under the state’s death penalty statute as well as called on the legislature to establish a racial justice act in Ohio. The task force hopes to conclude by the end of 2013.