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Published: Thursday, February 20, 2014 @ 5:58 PM
Updated: Thursday, February 20, 2014 @ 5:58 PM
BEAVERCREEK — Joe Byrne was once a strong supporter of the death penalty in Ohio. When he witnessed the execution of his wife Sherry's killer, David Brewer of Greene County, Byrne thought justice had been served and expected to feel a sense of closure. Instead, within days, he felt intense sadness. "What I thought I wanted had just happened, but I felt worse," Byrne said.
Now, more than a decade after the execution, Byrne is speaking out as an opponent of the death penalty. He describes not only the human cost for family members of both the victim and inmate, but also the financial cost to taxpayers.
"It is wasted money and if you get rid of the death penalty you do not have that," Byrne said.
Byrne is not the only former proponent of the death penalty in Ohio to switch sides in the debate. Ohio Supreme Court Senior Justice Paul Pfeifer, who wrote the state's death penalty law when he was in the legislature 33 years ago, is now opposed to it.
"When the appeals process started taking ten years and fifteen and twenty that undermined the purpose of it," Pfeifer said. Over time, his opinion on the issue changed and now he feels the resources of prosecutors and the public defender would be better spent elsewhere. "The cost is enormous," Pfeifer said.
Studies from other states put the cost of the death penalty at much more than cases where the defendant is sentenced to life in prison without parole. A Maryland study put the cost at $3 million per inmate. Former Ohio Corrections Director Reginald Wilkinson, who oversaw the execution of 20 inmates, said the costs escalate long before the inmate enters the prison system. "The expense comes in with the initial trial. First of all it is much more expensive to prosecute a capital case," Wilkinson said. A report to the Indiana legislature said death penalty cases cost ten times more to prosecute than other murder cases where the defendant faces life in prison.
The renewed debate over the death penalty has prompted critics to call for a ban so that money spent on the marathon court appeals by death row inmates can be put to better use. Kevin Werner, Executive Director of Ohioans to Stop Executions, said the state can and should do more for victims family members. "Put those resources to the victim's family, put it to law enforcement agencies and put it to where it is going to do the most good," Werner said.
While critics feel like they are winning new converts, death penalty supporters in the legislature remain steadfast. Rep. Jim Buchy, R-Greenville, said the law should remain on the books. Although even Buchy is irked by the rising cost of the system. So Buchy has begun looking into what legislative changes could be made to streamline the appeals.
"What can we do to help the process so that justice is carried out to the least possible cost to the taxpayer?" Buchy said.