Ohio Supreme Court upholds state’s death penalty law

The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled [opinion PDF] on Wednesday that the state’s death penalty statute does not violate the Sixth Amendment’s [text] guarantee of “the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury[.]” Maurice Mason, a former death row inmate, unsuccessfully challenged the role given to the judge during the sentencing phase of capital punishment cases.

The court unanimously upheld Ohio’s law as being in line with the requirements laid out by the US Supreme Court [official website] in Hurst v. Florida [opinion]. In Ohio, the jury must first come to a guilty verdict [ORC § 2929.03]. Next, the jury determines the presence of aggravating and mitigating factors [ORC § 2929.04]. Then, the jury itself must make a finding that the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating ones. Only after this finding has resulted in a recommendation of the death penalty does the judge’s sentencing discretion come into play. If the judge agrees with the jury’s weighing of the relevant factors, the judge may sentence the defendant to death. In the absence of a unanimous jury verdict on any of these questions, or if the judge disagrees with the jury’s weighing of the factors, the judge can only hand down a life sentence.

The US Supreme Court has interpreted the Sixth Amendment as requiring every fact necessary for imposition of capital punishment to be determined by the jury. Most recently, in Hurst, the court struck down Florida’s capital punishment sentencing scheme. Under the invalidated law, after a jury rendered a guilty verdict, the judge determined whether aggravating factors counseling in favor of the death penalty outweighed mitigating factors counseling against.

Noting the differences between the Florida statute at issue in Hurst and the Ohio statute, the court rejected Mason’s interpretation of the Sixth Amendment.

Ohio trial judges may weigh aggravating circumstances against mitigating factors and impose a death sentence only after the jury itself has made the critical findings and recommended that sentence. Thus, “the judge’s authority to sentence derives wholly from the jury’s verdict.” … Under Ohio’s death-penalty scheme, therefore, trial judges function squarely within the framework of the Sixth Amendment.

Because all of the elements needed for a capital punishment sentence are determined by the jury, the Ohio Supreme Court found the law to be in accordance with Hurst and with the US Constitution.

About: Shawn

Shawn Shah is an expert legal analyst, lawyer, and journalist.


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