COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Ohio’s capital punishment law is unconstitutional because judges, not juries, impose death sentences in contrast to the 6th Amendment right to a jury trial, lawyers for a convicted killer argued before the state Supreme Court on Tuesday.
Attorneys for ex-death row inmate Maurice Mason said a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring Florida’s death penalty law unconstitutional based on the same jury principle should apply in Ohio.
In that ruling, the court said the 6th Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to determine each fact needed to sentence someone to death, Kort Gatterdam, a Columbus attorney representing Mason, told the court.
“A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough,” Gatterdam said.
According to the U.S. Supreme Court, judges must conduct their own analyses of the pros and cons of sentencing someone to death, not just accept a jury’s recommendation, Gatterdam said in a court filing last year.
In Ohio, if juries recommend capital punishment, judges impose the sentence. Ohio judges can reject death sentences but can’t impose them if juries don’t recommend them.
In defending the law, a prosecutor argued that lawmakers struck the proper balance in the state’s death penalty law with the roles of Ohio judges and juries clearly defined.
In Florida, juries only had to agree that the heinousness of a crime outweighed arguments against a death sentence by a majority, Kevin Collins, an assistant Marion County prosecutor, said in a 2017 filing with the state Supreme Court.
By contrast, Ohio requires a unanimous vote. And Ohio law is far more strict about what juries must specify about factors that led them to impose a death sentence than the Florida law that was overturned, Collins said.
The two laws “are different in constitutionally significant ways,” Collins told the justices.
A decision by the Ohio Supreme Court isn’t expected for months.
After the 2016 ruling, Florida stopped all executions for months. In response, the state Legislature passed a new law requiring death sentences to have a unanimous jury vote.
Mason, 54, was sentenced to die for raping and killing a woman in Marion County in 1993. Authorities say he raped 19-year-old Robin Dennis, pistol whipped her and repeatedly hit her head with a board with nails in it.
Dennis gave Mason a ride to his house because her husband planned to trade his gun for Mason’s television, according to court records.
A federal appeals court overturned Mason’s death sentence on the basis or poor legal assistance, but he remains imprisoned. He’s challenging a new sentencing hearing.
Ohio’s next execution is Feb. 13, when Raymond Tibbetts is scheduled to die for killing a Cincinnati man in 1997.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.
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