Ohio Supreme Court justice argues death penalty is ineffective and should be abolished
When Justice Paul Pfeifer undertook a crusade to restore the death penalty in Ohio in the early 1980s, he was a state senator. Now a state Supreme Court justice, Pfeifer wants to see it done away with altogether.
Alongside the family members of both murder victims and death row exonerees, Pfeifer testified before state legislators Wednesday in favor of House Bill 160, which would abolish the death penalty in Ohio. Afterward, Pfeifer told reporters at the Ohio Statehouse that Ohio’s death penalty policy no longer serves the state, and that capital punishment should be abolished.
Pfeifer noted that, while he has a duty to follow the law, he is also obligated to “step forward and advocate for changes that would lead to improvement.”
“I think abolishing the death penalty would be a needed improvement,” Pfeifer said. “It will happen. Will it be today, tomorrow, in this session of the General Assembly? More problematic. … but the day will come when Ohio no longer has a death penalty.”
Pfeifer supported his declaration (an especially bold one, as Ohio has recently pioneered a new, more “humane” single-drug method for lethal injection) by pointing to a national trend away from capital punishment, such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s prohibition on executing the mentally retarded.
“I think the next step will probably be taking a look at those who had a serious mental illness at the time they committed the crime,” he said, offering as example a recent and grisly case in which the murderer was caught after confessing the crime to a priest. In doing so, the deranged man demonstrated that he understood what he had done was wrong, which automatically made him eligible for the death penalty.
Pfeifer also opined that the electric chair was a preferable method of execution, if its value as a deterrent were to be taken seriously.
“If there’s any argument for it as a deterrent, the more unpleasant, the more unspeakable the method of execution, the more likely it would be to be a deterrent,” he said of the electric chair. “But, if you look at the data from states that don’t have [the death penalty], you see roughly the same number of murders, aggravated murders, so it’s impossible to make a case that the death penalty deters anyone.”
When asked whether he regretted his role in the death penalty’s restoration, Pfeifer said he was mostly just surprised at the way the Ohio Supreme Court had broadened its reach.
“’Proper calculation and design’ [premeditation] is about a millisecond, and when we put it in, we were [targeting] people who planned a murder,” he said. “That’s no longer the case, and that’s the result of a number of Supreme Court decisions, many of which were made before I even arrived at the Court.
“We clearly meant to get the garden-variety domestic dispute, where murder ends up being the outcome, out of the death penalty,” he continued. “Some of my colleagues say, ‘You couldn’t have meant that,’ I think they view it as a harsh view toward women, but that is in fact what we were trying to do then,” he said, adding that the definition of kidnapping, which can be used by a prosecutor to qualify a defendant for the death penalty, had been greatly expanded, as well.
“We have a number of cases where, if you point a gun at a person for a few minutes, you are now guilty of kidnapping,” he said.
While not part of his testimony, Pfeifer added that citizens would want to move away from the death penalty as they realize what it means culturally.
“We don’t find ourselves in great company when we look at the countries that still use the death penalty,” he said. “I think we’re seventh in the world. We follow China, Saudi Arabia, Iran. … That’s the kind of company we’re keeping with the heavy use of the death penalty. And I think that’s uncomfortable to most citizens, as they begin to recognize that most of what we consider ‘developed countries’ don’t use the death penalty at all.”
Watch Pfeifer talk to reporters:
(Photo: Flickr Getty Images/Dave Delay)