COLUMBUS — The Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday (April 18) upheld the constitutionality of the state’s three-decades-old death penalty law, rejecting a challenge that argued juries and not judges should impose death sentences.
The court ruled against the contention by lawyers for a convicted killer that the 1981 law is unconstitutional because judges, not juries, impose death sentences in contrast to the 6th Amendment right to a jury trial.
The court said in a unanimous ruling that the law is constitutional because juries in Ohio first determine whether an offender is guilty beyond reasonable doubt of aggravated murder. Juries then decide whether aggravated circumstances such as a killing committed during a rape or robbery outweigh factors that could lead to a lesser sentence, such as a defendant’s background or substance abuse, according to Wednesday’s ruling.
That process adheres to the 6th Amendment, said Justice Patrick Fischer, writing for the court.
At issue before the court were arguments brought by attorneys for ex-death row inmate Maurice Mason. Those lawyers 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, according to Kort Gatterdam, a Columbus attorney representing Mason.
In Ohio, juries’ death sentence verdicts are only recommendations, and judges still need to make their own, independent conclusions about the specific factors in a case that require a death sentence, Gatterdam said in a filing with the court last year.
As in Florida, judges in Ohio “are required to make additional factual findings that the jury did not make before any defendant can be sentenced to death,” Gatterdam said.
Gatterdam said he disagrees with the ruling and is weighing an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But the state Supreme Court disagreed, saying Ohio’s law differs from the Florida law because juries in Ohio must find an offender guilty of an aggravating circumstance.
“Ohio’s scheme differs from Florida’s because Ohio requires the jury to make this specific and critical finding,” Fischer said.
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.
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 of poor legal assistance, but he remains imprisoned. He’s challenging a new sentencing hearing.
Court blocks law that diverts money from Planned Parenthood
COLUMBUS — A federal appeals court on Wednesday (April 18) blocked an Ohio law that tried to divert public money from Planned Parenthood in an anti-abortion push by GOP lawmakers.
The Ohio law targeted the more than $1.4 million in funding that Planned Parenthood gets through the state’s health department. That money, mostly from the federal government, supports certain education and prevention programs.
The law would bar such funds from going to entities that perform or promote abortions.
The restrictions, which had been slated to take effect in 2016, were signed by Republican Gov. John Kasich during his failed presidential bid.
A federal judge blocked the law that same year. Wednesday’s ruling from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upheld that lower-court decision.
Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio and Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio Region had sued the state, saying the law violated their constitutional rights by denying them the funds “in retaliation for” providing abortions.
Planned Parenthood said Ohio’s law would not force any of its 28 health centers in the state to close but the legislation would deprive thousands of patients of access to services such as HIV tests and breast and cervical cancer screenings.
The group’s attorneys argued the law was unconstitutional because it required, as a condition of receiving government funds, that recipients abandon their constitutionally protected rights to free speech and to provide abortion services.
Wednesday’s decision said the money at issue had nothing to do with abortion, while noting that state and federal law have prohibited the use of government funds to pay for abortions for decades.
The state wrongly concluded “that because Ohio has the right to refuse to fund abortion, it necessarily has the right to refuse to provide any funds to abortion providers, regardless of how the funds are to be used,” said Judge Helene White, writing for the majority three-judge ruling.
The state’s attorneys had argued that Planned Parenthood was trying to override state policy choices and that no entity has a constitutional right to receive public money.
The state is deciding whether to ask the full appeals court to hear the case or appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, said Dan Tierney, a spokesman for the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.
Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, women have a constitutionally protected right to terminate a pregnancy before a fetus is able to survive outside the womb, generally around 24 weeks of pregnancy.
Planned Parenthood is a national target because of its role as the largest U.S. abortion provider.