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Ohio Supreme Court Upholds Constitutionality Of State Death Penalty Law

In this November 2005 file photo, Larry Greene, public information director of the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, demonstrates how a curtain is pulled between the death chamber and witness room at the prison in Lucasville, Ohio.
Kiichiro Sato
Associated Press

The Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday 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. A message was left with Gatterdam on Wednesday seeking comment on the ruling.

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.