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As Support For Capital Punishment Wanes, An Ohio D.A. Continues To Push For Death

In Franklin County, experts say Ron O’Brien’s capital cases—which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars— amount to ‘just taxpayer money being lit on fire.’

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from the Ron O’Brien Franklin County Prosecutor Facebook.

The number of people on death row in the U.S. is at a 27-year low, but Franklin County District Attorney Ron O’Brien sought the death penalty in 10 cases from 2014 through 2018, according to an analysis of court records by The Appeal. But O’Brien, who has served as the DA since 1997, secured a death verdict in just one of the 10 cases. Eight resulted in a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. 

In August, a jury returned a death verdict in the case of Kristofer Garrett, convicted for murdering his girlfriend and their 4-year-old daughter in January 2018. Garrett was the first person since 2003 to be sentenced to death in Franklin County, the most populous county in the state with more than 1.3 million residents.

One death penalty case brought by O’Brien is currently awaiting trial.

O’Brien’s relentless pursuit of the death penalty makes Franklin County an outlier in the U.S., according to Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Under O’Brien, Franklin County joins other outlier counties like Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which Dunham said currently is the most prolific county in seeking the death penalty, and Caddo Parish, Louisiana, where the death-seeking rate between 2006 and 2015 was eight times greater than the rest of the state. Despite accounting for only 5 percent of the state population, nearly 40 percent of people sentenced to death in Louisiana during that time came from Caddo Parish. In 2015, James Stewart was elected Caddo district attorney. Since then, Stewart has continued to seek the death penalty but in a more limited capacity than the previous administration. But Stewart has sought the death penalty in cases originating prior to his tenure and continues to support death sentences imposed before he took office.  

Dunham said fewer than 2 percent of counties in the U.S. account for approximately 60 percent of all people currently sentenced to death row. More than 80 percent of counties have not sentenced anyone to death in more than 40 years and roughly 85 percent of counties have not carried out an execution.

According to a recent ACLU report, only three counties—Los Angeles, Riverside (California) and Maricopa (Arizona)—had more than 10 death sentences from 2014 to 2018.

Prosecutors have nearly unlimited discretion, and O’Brien’s choice to seek the death penalty has been costly to Franklin County. 

The capital case against Brian Lee Golsby, charged with the Feb. 9, 2017, murder of Ohio State University senior Reagan Tokes, cost the county more than $150,000 in defense and mitigation fees alone, according to Franklin County Cour of Common Pleas records.

Like nearly all of the capital cases brought by O’Brien, Golsby’s did not result in a death sentence. In March 2018, a jury found Golsby guilty of aggravated murder but chose to sentence him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

A 2003 study in Kansas found death penalty cases cost roughly 70 percent more than non-death cases. Similar research in Maryland in 2008 found cases where a death sentence was sought but not imposed cost about 60 percent more than non-death cases.

Dunham said much of those costs come before the person charged even goes to trial. A death penalty case generally requires two attorneys, mitigation specialists, psychiatric experts, intensive and multigenerational family histories and a host of other expert witnesses and research that are not required in non-death penalty cases. All of these costs are typically paid by the county, Dunham said, because most people charged in capital cases are poor

“You begin to see how defense costs mount up, how the costs to the court system begin to mount up,” Dunham said.

Even if a death sentence is imposed, most are overturned on appeal, according to Dunham.

He said all the added expenditures from the point when the death sentence is sought to when it is either overturned or not imposed are “just taxpayer money being lit on fire.”

Golsby has something else in common with the overwhelming majority of people who face the death penalty in Franklin County: He is Black.

In eight out of the 10 death penalty cases brought by O’Brien between 2014 and 2018, the person charged was Black, even though Black people comprise less than 25 percent of the overall population in Franklin County.

“It’s troublesome when you think about going to pick a jury,” Rachel Troutman, a supervising attorney in the death penalty department of the Ohio public defender office, told The Appeal. “If you have a Black defendant in a white county, these aren’t jurors of his peers.”

But O’Brien did not seek the death penalty against William Husel, a white intensive-care doctor indicted on 25 counts of murder in June. Prosecutors in O’Brien’s office allege that Husel killed 25 people over four years by administering excessive doses of fentanyl while working in the Mount Carmel Health System.

O’Brien told reporters he was not seeking the death penalty against Husel because he could not prove “prior calculation or design” by Husel. O’Brien later said, however, it was clearly Husel’s intent to kill his patients.

O’Brien did not respond to The Appeal’s request for comment.

Dunham said that since 2013, approximately one-third of the most prolific death-seeking prosecutors have been replaced. Several district attorneys were succeeded by people seeking to reform the criminal legal system and end the death penalty. In 2017, voters in Philadelphia elected Larry Krasner as district attorney. Krasner has been an outspoken opponent of the death penalty and his election signaled a fundamental shift in how capital cases would be handled in the city.

Before being sentenced to federal prison on corruption charges, Seth Williams, Krasner’s predecessor, sued Governor Tom Wolf over Wolf’s moratorium on executions. Williams sought the death penalty in more than 200 cases during his tenure, but only secured a death sentence in three cases. This was a significant decline from Williams’s predecessor, Lynne Abraham, dubbed the “Queen of death” because she secured 108 death sentences during her 19 years in office. 

Krasner has not sought a single death sentence in any case since taking the office in 2018.

“The ‘hang-em-high’ philosophy of fear that prevailed at the ballot box in the 1990s doesn’t work in most major counties today,” Dunham said. “Prosecutors act at their own peril in appearing to be living in that past.”