Death and Dollars

A view of the death chamber from the witness room at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility. A view of the death chamber from the witness room at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility.

The economy of Ohio’s death penalty

By Tim Walker

A view of the death chamber from the witness room at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility.

Derrick Jamison wasn’t supposed to be able to talk to me. A man wrongfully convicted of murder, the State of Ohio wanted him to be dead by now, his protests of innocence forever silenced by lethal injection.
On August 1, 1984, bartender Gary Mitchell was brutally beaten to death at the Central Bar in downtown Cincinnati during a robbery, one of a string of violent downtown robberies that took place in the mid-1980s. Customers found Mitchell near death with blunt-force trauma to the head. He succumbed to his injuries several days later. Several eyewitnesses gave varying accounts of persons leaving and entering the scene of the crime but, during the investigation, a Pony shoe print was found on top of the bar.
Jamison was arrested two months later after robbing a Gold Star Chili restaurant, and was wearing the gym shoes that had produced the shoe print at the Central Bar. Charles Howell was later arrested as an accomplice in the murder. He told police that he and Jamison had robbed the bar and that Jamison had attacked the bartender.
There were, however, multiple contradictions between physical descriptions of the perpetrators given by eyewitnesses and Jamison’s actual appearance. When James Suggs, an eyewitness to the robbery and murder, was shown photo arrays of suspects by Cincinnati police, he identified two men, neither of which were Derrick Jamison. Jamison alleges that 35 pieces of evidence that were favorable to him were suppressed by the Cincinnati Police Department and never given to the prosecutors, who therefore were not able to provide it to the defense, as the law requires. Charles Howell, the co-defendant, agreed to testify against Jamison in exchange for a reduced sentence.
Eventually, Derrick Jamison was convicted of the murder of Gary Mitchell. The judge followed the jury’s recommendation and sentenced him to death, and he spent nearly 20 years behind bars on Ohio’s death row. While he was incarcerated, both his mother and father passed away.
But in February 2005, Ohio Common Pleas CourtJudge Richard Niehaus dismissed all the charges against Jamison. After a court fight that had dragged on for decades, his conviction had finally been overturned on appeal three years earlier. He now walks the streets of Cincinnati a free man.
“I’m the 119th death row exoneree in the United States,” Mr. Jamison said recently. “They had something at the Freedom Center last night about this guy who did 20 years in Mexico for a murder he didn’t commit, and they had the guy there. And then they had this Q&A and when I told him my own story, they were shocked. I shocked them when I told them what happened to me, that I did 17 years on death row for something I didn’t do. And the whole time, they knew I was innocent. But it takes so long for that appeal process to work in the United States. By that time, a person could be dead. I got a lot of friends that were wrongfully convicted and I have a lot of friends who I know were innocent who were executed.”
Derrick Jamison is not a murderer, yet he spent nearly 20 years of his life locked behind bars on our state’s death row. He spent his days and nights knowing that his own government was planning to murder him.
“In my opinion,” Jamison continued, “I don’t think one person should have the right to say you live or die. The government says its wrong to kill and then they turn around and murder you. I watched them take young men out of their cells and murder them. I watched a lot of my friends die. I tell stories all around the world and people are astonished that this sort of thing is still going on. We are the only civilized country in the world that still kills its citizens.”
The cost of death
According to the Death Penalty Information Center’s website, (, 138 men have been set free from death rows in the U.S. since 1973. Derrick Jamison is number 119. These are all men who were sentenced to be executed, and have been either acquitted at re-trial, had all charges dropped, or granted absolute pardons by the governors based on new evidence of innocence. One hundered and thirty eight innocent men who, for one reason or another, were able to escape the death sentence that had been given to them in error, 138 men just like Derrick Jamison; one might wonder how many other innocent men are lying in graves right now, silenced by our legal system because they didn’t share that same good luck.
Ohio has embraced the death penalty and it is costing us a fortune; the state of Illinois recently became the 16th state in the U.S. to abolish the death penalty after extensive research revealed that the state had spent nearly $120 million to send 15 men to death row, while the costs were ongoing as their cases continued through the court system. It is estimated the ultimate cost to a state is three times as much to prosecute a death penalty case compared to cases where the sentence is life in prison without possibility of parole.
“The cost of capital punishment in Ohio is exemplified by Wilford Berry’s execution in 1999,” wrote attorney Jack D’Aurora recently in a Columbus Dispatch editorial. “Known as the ‘volunteer,’ Berry waived his right to various post-trial proceedings and was the first offender executed after Ohio reinstated capital punishment. The cost of his arrest, prosecution and executions is reported at $1.5 million. Nine years passed between his conviction and execution. Had Berry not ‘volunteered,’ it likely would have taken another five to 10 years to execute him and substantially more money to get through the post-trial proceedings.”
Through the years
The story of capital punishment has not been without incident in the Buckeye state. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court first declared Ohio’s death penalty statute to be unconstitutional. Then, in 1974, the state legislature revised Ohio’s death penalty law, but the Supreme Court rejected that one as well. In 1981 a new death penalty statute, one that passed constitutional muster, was enacted, but it would take another 18 years before Ohio would again execute a prisoner. Since then, the state has worked hard to make up for lost time. Ohio has the distinction of being the only state in the U.S. where the number of executions increased between 2009 and 2010.
Starting with Berry, in 1999, Ohio has executed a total of 43 people. This puts Ohio tied with North Carolina for eighth place in the rankings of states that have executed the most inmates in the death penalty’s modern era. Clarence Carter of Hamilton County was put to death last week on April 12 for the murder of a fellow inmate while both were incarcerated. Clarence was one of 155 men sitting on Ohio’s death row, with one woman, Nicole Ann Diar. If she is eventually executed, she will be the first woman to receive capital punishment in the state of Ohio in nearly 60 years. But that may never happen. It now appears that capital punishment in Ohio may be facing death itself, for a variety of reasons.
The death of the death penalty?
Economic, yes – but along with cost there are legal, philosophical and practical objections. There has been a whirlwind of death penalty opposition in the news recently, some of which coming from surprising sources.
In February, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer, the senior justice for the very court that ultimately handles the state’s death penalty appeals, wrote an editorial in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that called for Governor John Kasich and the Ohio Legislature to abolish the death penalty. This is not a new or surprising idea – anti-death penalty advocates have been saying the same thing for decades. What is surprising about Mr. Pfeifer’s opinion, however, is that as a state senator in 1981, he helped to draft the current death penalty statutes. He feels that the death penalty law is not being applied as the authors of the law originally intended, which was to give prosecutors the capability to seek capital punishment for only the absolute worst offenders. He points out that since 2005, when the legislature passed a law that enabled prosecutors to seek a penalty of life without possibility of parole, we have seen the number of death penalty sentences drop precipitously. “Prosecutors and jurors have told us – by their actions – that life without the possibility of parole is a more desirable outcome to a murder trial than a death sentence,” Pfeifer wrote.
Also in February, Archbishop Dennis Schnurr of Cincinnati and Bishop Frederick Campbell of Columbus were among 10 Catholic Church leaders who signed a statement from the Catholic Conference of Ohio urging the state to stop using the death penalty. That statement read, in part, “In other states and countries, life imprisonment has shown itself to be an effective alternative. Life imprisonment respects the moral view that all life, even that of the worst offender, has value and dignity.”
In March, Terry Collins, former Ohio prisons director, joined with a Cincinnati civil rights attorney to urge Governor Kasich to spare the life of condemned killer Clarence Carter. Collins has said, as a veteran of three decades working in the prison system, that he opposes capital punishment because he feels it can’t be fairly administered, it’s expensive, and it offers no second chances. Collins personally witnessed 33 executions during his time as a prison official.
Following in Illinois’ footsteps?
Also in March, House Bill 160 was introduced. If it becomes law, it will abolish the death penalty in Ohio. Democratic state representatives Ted Celeste of Grandview Heights and Nickie J. Antonio of Lakewood co-sponsored the legislation, which is known as the Execute Justice Bill.
“We introduced House Bill 160 with 15 co-sponsors,” said Representative Celeste. “We have bi-partisan support for it. It eliminates the death penalty and replaces it with life without a chance of parole. When we introduced it we had two exonerees and a family member whose husband was an exoneree as well. They had very compelling stories about issues of wrongful conviction. Our presentation also highlighted the additional cost to the system and the state for carrying out the death penalty, and indeed it turns out that the cost of carrying out an execution through all the trials and process is about three times as expensive as life without parole.
“The economic angle has been an approach that several of the states have found compelling recently,” he continued. ”And it is an important issue, but frankly there are other very strong reasons for doing away with it. The fact that it’s so unfairly carried out, the county in which a crime is committed can have a substantial impact on whether or not the death penalty is even sought due to the added expense. Therefore it’s not evenly carried out around the state. It has the potential for putting someone to death who was wrongfully convicted. And that’s the biggest one. There have been a number of people who have been exonerated who could have gone through the execution process. That alone is a big reason.”
Death and dollars
In a time of dwindling tax revenue, tighter budgets and the attack on collective bargaining rights for public employees, the economic necessity of doing away with the death penalty comes up again and again in interviews and research.
In a report in the Dallas Morning News called “Executions Cost Texas Millions,” it was estimated that each death penalty case in Texas cost taxpayers $2.3 million. That was estimated to be about three times the cost of imprisoning an individual in a single cell at the highest level of security for 40 years.
In a study conducted by the Palm Beach Post in 2000, it was estimated that the state of Florida could save $51 million per year by sentencing all convicted first-degree murderers to life in prison without possibility of parole, and forgoing the death penalty.
A study released by the Urban Institute in Washington D.C. in March 2008 forecast that the lifetime expenses of capitally prosecuted cases since 1978 will cost Maryland taxpayers $186 million. That translates into at least $37.2 million for the each one of the state’s five executions since the state reenacted the death penalty. The study estimated that the average cost to Maryland taxpayers for reaching a single death sentence is $3 million – $1.9 million more than for a non-death penalty case. This figure included investigation, trial, appeals and incarceration costs.
Ohio currently has 155 individuals sitting on death row. If the cost figures from Illinois are applied here, that means the state of Ohio has spent nearly $1 billion to convict and send those offenders to death row. Following Clarence Carter last week, there are now a total of six more Ohio executions scheduled for 2011. If all take place, the 2011 total of inmates killed in this state will be nine – one more than the state of Texas in number of inmates put to death this year.
With Ohio’s $8 billion deficit, the necessity of eliminating the death penalty in our state and putting our tax dollars to better use seems clear. As Judge Boyce F. Martin, Jr. of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently said, “The choice to pay for the death penalty is a choice not to pay for other public goods like roads, schools, parks, public works … so we need to ask whether the death penalty is worth what we are sacrificing to maintain it.”

Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at

Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at

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