Derrick Jamison served 20 years on Ohio’s death row for a crime he did not commit. He lived in a one-man cell, his meal trays slid through a slot in the door. He said goodbye to 18 fellow inmates who were executed.
He faced six execution dates himself, with the governor calling off each, one just 90 minutes before it was scheduled. When family visited, he talked with them from behind Plexiglas. He was awaiting his mother’s visit one day in 1997 when guards arrived to report her death.
Throughout it all, he worked on his case, eventually convincing a court that he was convicted of murdering Cincinnati bartender Gary Mitchell based on false testimony and withheld evidence. In 2000, he won a new trial. In 2005, he was freed, with all charges against him dismissed.
“I was in hell, a living hell,” Jamison says now from Tampa, Florida, where he lives with his dog, Lucky, and works for the national anti-death penalty group Witness to Innocence. “They came to ask me six times what did I want for my last meal and where did I want my body sent.”
Among Jamison’s former Ohio death row friends, five with 2022 execution dates will be asked those same questions this year. The balance of the state’s 131 condemned men, plus one woman, will face them in the years ahead.
Or, like Jamison, they could be saved by a dramatic turn of events—in this case, the votes of Ohio lawmakers who are currently considering identical bills in the Senate and House to end capital punishment. Supporters of the bills think they have the votes. They have sponsors from both parties. They have national trends and prominent advocates on their side. They have a governor, running for re-election, who hasn’t overseen any executions since his election in 2018 and a state that’s produced just one death sentence in the last two years. “The death penalty is on its way out,” Ohioans to Stop Executions predicted in a year-end letter, “and this year has ensured that its demise will be sooner rather than later.”
Others, particularly those in charge of prosecuting murder charges, believe a death sentence is warranted for certain heinous crimes and that supposed public opposition to capital punishment is overstated. Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, for one, thinks the death penalty is “sometimes the only thing that [victims’] families or the community demands and can get justice for.”
Jamison, as one of 186 inmates exonerated from death rows across the U.S., says the criminal justice system too often convicts innocent people. Like a growing number of Ohioans, he believes a life sentence—with or without possibility of parole—is a better option for the guilty. “We should end the death penalty in America, period,” he says. “It’s wrong. Nobody should have the right to say who should live or die.”
Ohio has been killing people who kill people since its founding. In the 1800s, the condemned were hanged. From 1897 to 1963, they died in the electric chair. After a variety of interruptions—including a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1972 that the death penalty was unconstitutional and the drafting of a new Ohio capital punishment law in 1981—the state resumed executions in 1999, as “volunteer” Wilford Berry selected lethal injection over electrocution. In 2001, the state disconnected the electric chair, allowing for execution only by lethal injection. By its own count, Ohio has executed 393 convicted murderers in its history.
The state can seek the death penalty only in aggravated murder cases—that is, killings with special circumstances. Among them: killing a governor or president; killing someone younger than 13; and killing that involves kidnapping, rape, aggravated arson, or terrorism. The annual review of Ohio death row cases, published by the attorney general’s office, reads like 132 mini horror stories, with terse retellings of shootings, stabbings, slashings, strangulations, beatings, and bindings. Domestic partners (and their families) are frequent victims. Alcohol and drugs are often involved.
The most recent Ohio death row arrival, 40-year-old Joel Drain, was convicted of killing fellow Warren Correctional Institution inmate Christopher Richardson in 2019, hitting him with a fan before putting a pencil in his eye and strangling him with a cord. The Findlay man was already serving time for killing an associate named Randy Grose in 2016, strangling and stabbing him and stealing his car. Death row’s longest resident, Gregory Esparza, was convicted of killing a Toledo store clerk in 1983 and stealing money from her cash register. He arrived on death row the following May. The second longest held, John Stumpf, was convicted of shooting Mary Jane Stout four times in 1984, when he showed up at her Guernsey County home and asked to use the phone. He landed on death row that September and is scheduled for execution on August 13, 2024.
In the last two decades, Ohio lawmakers have revisited capital punishment regularly and governors have had their say by way of commutations, typically turning death sentences into life without parole. Bob Taft commuted one sentence; Ted Strickland, five; and John Kasich, seven. Before that, on his way out of office in 1991, Richard Celeste commuted eight death sentences. Since he took office in January 2019, Mike DeWine has not made any commutations, but he has issued 30 reprieves to delay execution dates. “Lethal injection appears to us to be impossible from a practical point of view today,” he told the Associated Press at the end of 2020, confirming the state’s “unofficial moratorium” on capital punishment.
This spring, Ohio legislators could write new state history with Senate Bill 103 and House Bill 183, which would abolish the death penalty. Aggravated murder convictions would instead result in either a life sentence without parole or a life sentence with parole after 20 or 30 years. Current death row inmates would not get an automatic reprieve and would instead need to seek resentencing to avoid execution. If the bills pass, Ohio would be the 24th state in the country without a death penalty. At present, the state ranks No. 6 nationally for its number of death row inmates. Eighteen of the current 132 inmates are from Hamilton County, second only to Cuyahoga County (24).
Last summer, when Senate and House committees staged hearings on the bills, 58 witnesses spoke in favor of them and three spoke against. The first in line was an unlikely champion: Jean Schmidt, a Republican who supported capital punishment in her first four years in the Ohio House, then during eight years in the U.S. House. She was drawn back to state politics in 2020, she says, partly to repeal the death penalty. She and Columbus Democrat Adam Miller are the primary sponsors of HB183 with 16 other Democrats and six Republicans as cosponsors.
“You know, life changes you,” Schmidt says now. “When I left Congress, I began to go back into my community…and became convinced that we needed to end this.” Early on, she heard anti-death-penalty nun Sr. Helen Prejean speak. She read False Justice, written by former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro and his wife, Nancy, about failings of the criminal justice system. She spoke with exonerees convicted of murder with flawed evidence, such as Tyra Patterson, a Cincinnati woman released in 2017 after 23 years behind bars, and Joe D’Ambrosio, a Cleveland man released in 2010 after 21 years in prison. Most recently, she’s taken interest in the case of Anthony Apanovitch, released from death row in 2015 but returned in 2018 for an error in his earlier appeal.
Those encounters and her faith— she’s a pro-life, practicing Catholic— convinced Schmidt that a life sentence is the better punishment for convicted murderers. So did the expense of capital punishment, which she’d rather see directed to crime victims.
In public appearances, Schmidt is asked about COVID and the economy more often than her death penalty bill. But she says she’s not been shy about raising the issue with fellow Ohio lawmakers. “I do believe that I’m changing hearts on my side of the aisle, one at a time,” she says.
Margery Koosed knows all about the costs of the death penalty, along with a long list of other issues that, in her words, make Ohio’s death penalty “the most inefficient state program ever devised.” She’s researched and written about the topic since the 1970s, as a law professor (now retired) at the University of Akron and currently as chair of Ohioans to Stop Executions. With SB103 and HB183 on the table, Koosed helped OTSE summarize its objections to capital punishment in The Failed Experiment: 40 Years of Ohio’s Death Penalty, a report released in December 2020.
On the cost front, the report notes that capital murder cases, from start to finish, cost two-and-a-half to five times more than non-capital ones. Put another way, the state spends at least double when it sentences a convicted murderer to death instead of life in prison. As just one example, in the Akron area, Summit County spent close to $268,000 on just the initial trial in a capital case in 2017, compared to $19,000 for a murder case without a death penalty specification. One additional expense: The state last year paid D’Ambrosio, the Cleveland exoneree, $1 million from its wrongful imprisonment fund.
Those dollars are largely wasted, Koosed says, since so few capital cases end in execution. How few? Just 1.6 percent by this math: Ohio counties have filed 3,365 capital cases since the state enacted its current death penalty law in 1981. Of those, 340 ended with a death sentence. Of that number, 56 defendants have been executed. That’s 1.6 percent of the initial cases, “not worth the massive investment Ohioans have made in it,” the OSTE report says.
Execution by lethal injection has been problematic. The drugs often don’t work, leading to ugly botched procedures. More recently, the state has not been able to buy the drugs it needs, since pharmaceutical companies don’t want to be tied to executions. Alternatives (firing squads, a return to hanging or electrocution) have not been seriously considered.
The death penalty is not applied evenly, says Koosed. Study after study has shown that persons on trial for murder are more likely to face the death penalty if they’re Black and/or tried in a county with a prosecutor who favors the death penalty.
The death penalty prolongs trauma. When cases play out over years and years— the average stay for Ohio’s 56 executed inmates was more than 17 years—the families of victims and murderers are in and out of the court system and headlines. “The death penalty simply adds to the pain for all those involved,” OTSE’s report says.
Support for capital punishment is in decline, the report reminds. Nationally, 54 percent support the death penalty for murder convictions, lower than at any time since 1966, according to a 2021 Gallup poll. In Ohio, 59 percent prefer life in prison (with or without the possibility of parole) to death, according to a 2020 poll of 600 voters commissioned by OTSE and the ACLU.
And finally, as Derrick Jamison knows, the state sometimes gets it wrong. He is among 11 Ohio death row inmates released after courts determined they were wrongfully convicted.
Koosed’s verdict is that the death penalty is “a wasteful system that’s totally broken and provides no societal benefit.” Even some right-of-center politicians are coming to that conclusion, she says. “If you’re a conservative Republican, chances are you have great concern about governmental overreach—and the most serious form of governmental overreach is taking life.”
Rukiye Abdul-Mutakallim serves on Koosed’s OTSE board. She’s the Cincinnati woman who won national attention when she hugged the killer of her son in court. On a June night in 2015, Suliman Abdul-Mutakallim withdrew $60 from an ATM, picked up food from White Castle, and began walking back to his South Cumminsville home. En route, the 39-year-old Navy veteran was shot in the back of the head, robbed, and left to die. Two years later, Javon Coulter, one of three assailants, was sentenced to 20 years for his part in the murder.
That’s when Rukiye Abdul-Mutakallim asked to hug Coulter and his mother. With a judge’s permission and cameras rolling, she offered him forgiveness and he in turn asked for hers. One YouTube recording of the hug has been watched more than 37 million times. Abdul-Mutakallim was moved, then as now, by Coulter’s youth; he was just 14 at the time of his crime.
In the years since her son’s death, Abdul-Mutakallim has become an advocate for reform at multiple levels. She speaks against the death penalty on behalf of OTSE. She created a nonprofit called The Musketeer Association, launching projects that address childhood trauma. She told Suliman’s story on stage at Memorial Hall. “You have to get to the root of our prison situation, and I found that it’s the disease of trauma,” she says. “Too many children suffer from trauma not of their own making. Yet we still put young people in prison without addressing the root causes of their [criminal] actions.”
This year, the retired banking professional is aiming to raise $7,000 to install 1,000 flowerpots across Cincinnati. The pots would replace pop-up memorials that mark trauma—the kind with teddy bears, balloons, and flower bouquets that die— with QR codes that provide the backstories of victims of violence.
She’s also working to keep a promise she made to Coulter to stay in his life. The prison system has made that difficult, since inmates are barred from communication with their victims. She can’t visit or write letters, but she’s sent him a dictionary and a book on Black history, and she’s seeking other ways to connect this year.
Not everyone thinks SB103 and HB183 will pass, or should. They include prosecutors who handle murder cases in Warren, Cleveland, and Cincinnati, along with the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, which wants to preserve the death penalty for “the worst-of-the-worst offenders,” Executive Director Louis Tobin told legislators last summer.
Tobin believes polls overstate public opposition to capital punishment because their questions fail to highlight the circumstances that allow for a death sentence. He believes life without parole is not the ultimate solution because it provides no greater punishment for committing more than one murder. And the blame for high costs and inefficiency, he says, is baked into a system that allows for extended appeals.
Tobin’s group believes Ohio voters should weigh in. If they vote to keep capital punishment, he says, “then we owe it them to find a way forward” by figuring out a way to reduce delays and resume executions.
Deters says he pursues the death penalty in Hamilton County only when he’s 100 percent sure a defendant is guilty and when he’s got solid proof for trial. “I don’t enjoy it,” he says of capital cases. “No one takes any pleasure because there’s tragedy everywhere.” His job, says Deters, is to enforce the law of Ohio, which currently calls for the death penalty for certain murderers.
Raised in a big family and the product of local Catholic schools, Deters originally opposed capital punishment, even as a law student. He changed his mind while prosecuting murder cases. “There are some cases that are so horrible that I never saw until I was in this office and that leave incredible carnage,” he says.
Deters did not testify against the state bills and doesn’t think they will pass. He takes issue with many of the arguments offered by their supporters and is especially aggrieved when appeal cases blame bad lawyering. “Appellate judges are reading a transcript and aren’t seeing the reaction of the witnesses, of the jury, of the judge,” he says. “They’re just detached from everything, which makes it easy for a defendant to claim Oh, I had a bad lawyer. It’s very subjective.”
He’s convinced a life sentence is not adequate punishment for some murderers, since prison time can include “working out every day, watching TV and movies, [using] your computer.” He’s concerned that life sentences are sometimes wiped away by “a goofy governor that lets them out” and returns murderers to communities where they can commit new crimes. And he’s most agitated by the argument that says the death penalty should be eliminated because of the long number of years between death sentences and execution.
“You have defense attorneys arm in arm with complacent judges…who are against the death penalty, for whatever reason, and they subvert it by delay after delay after delay,” says Deters. “The first thing they say is We need to end the death penalty because it takes too long. Really? Who’s causing this delay? It’s not the prosecutor’s office. It’s not the victim’s family.”
This spring, as lawmakers consider whether to end executions, 131 inmates will continue sitting in single cells on death row in the Chillicothe Correctional Institution, with the lone woman housed at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville. The Chillicothe prison—built as a federal facility in 1936 and taken over by Ohio in 1966—is situated on 72 acres along the Scioto River 50 miles south of Columbus and 100 miles east of Cincinnati. Executions, when and if they resume, take place about 40 miles south in Lucasville at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility. The state moved death row inmates to Chillicothe from Youngstown in early 2012 to reduce the time and cost of transporting them between death row and the so-called death house.
Death row residents live in one of three 50-inmate units in Chillicothe, segregated from the rest of the 2,800 or so other prisoners in the general population. They have access to a common area, outdoor recreation, and a limited number of programs. When they leave their unit, two guards cuff and escort them. Meals still come on trays slid through cell doors.
Besides the 18 inmates convicted by Hamilton County juries, Ohio’s current death row population holds another 10 from Butler, Clermont, Brown, and Warren counties. Last year, Butler County’s Donald Ketterer became the second removed from death row under a new law prohibiting the execution of people with severe mental illness at the time of their crimes. Seven of the inmates from southwest Ohio are among the 29 with scheduled execution dates stretching into 2025.
I contacted those seven with local ties and asked how their lives would change if the pending bills become law; three responded via the penitentiary e-mail system. One said he’s focused on getting evidence in his case reviewed and that “the topic of prison life, for a number of reasons, is not something that I like to discuss.” Another agreed to an interview and sent a dense four-part history of his case, but then changed his mind about talking.
A third offered details about his day-to-day life, saying he spends most of his time in his cell drawing, listening to music, reading, and working on his case. After nearly three decades on death row, he lives in hope that the death penalty will end. “Most of the guys” on death row, he says, know about the bills and hope they pass. “Do I want to die as opposed to spending the rest of my life in prison?” he asks in a subsequent phone conversation. “I would rather spend the rest of my life in prison, being a better person, than be executed for something I did back when I was 19 and I’m very sorry for doing.” Given the severe restrictions on death row, he adds, “giving us life in prison would be like giving us our freedom back.”
After a few e-mails and one call, he declined to talk again and asked not to be named, saying it could harm his ongoing efforts to win a sentence that could remove him from death row.