Hamilton County leads Ohio in sending people to death row
CINCINNATI (AP) — No one ends up on Ohio’s death row by getting lucky.
The road there is paved with bad decisions, terrible crimes, determined prosecutors and juries that reject pleas for mercy.
Raymond Tibbetts and Robert Van Hook, whose executions are set for later this year, had one more strike against them: They were convicted of murder in a place that embraces the death penalty like few others in America.
Hamilton County has sent more people to death row and is responsible for more executions than any county in Ohio since capital punishment returned to the state in 1981.
The county has a larger death row population per capita than the home counties of Los Angeles, Miami or San Diego. And it has more people on death row than all but 21 of the more than 3,000 counties in the United States.
“Hamilton County kind of stands out,” said Sister Helen Prejean, an author and anti-death penalty activist.
Tibbetts and Van Hook are among 24 convicted killers from Hamilton County on death row today. Ten others from the county have been executed since the death penalty’s return.
Tibbetts was scheduled to become the eleventh to die this week, but he got a reprieve until October so the parole board could reconsider his clemency request. Van Hook is now next in line, with an execution set for July.
Hamilton County’s reputation as a bad place to be charged with murder is well known, especially among those waiting to die. What’s harder to pin down is why the county is such an outlier.
Why is a murder trial here so much more likely to end with a death sentence?
The answer is rooted in the county’s culture, politics and history, but also in a tough-on-crime mindset that took hold when Cincinnati was a frontier town.
The first known executions here happened in 1789, when two soldiers who’d deserted Fort Washington were captured and shot by firing squad, according to Charles Greve’s “Centennial History of Cincinnati.” The commander of the fort, John Wilkinson, later explained in a letter that future deserters should be shot and beheaded, lest anyone misunderstand the seriousness of the crime.
“One head chopped off in this way and set upon a pole on the parade might do lasting good in the way of deterring others,” Wilkinson wrote.
Civilian executions, usually by hanging, soon followed, with many taking place at a gallows set up at Fifth and Walnut streets, near what today is Government Square. They often drew a crowd.
“The execution was public, as all such affairs were at that time, and the people gathered to see it,” Greve wrote of one such hanging. “Excursions were brought into the city and many came as far as fifty miles.”
The executions of Tibbetts and Van Hook by lethal injection would not be such a public spectacle, but they would be every bit as much a Hamilton County production. Their prosecutors and judges made the same call as those who sent Mays to the gallows more than two centuries earlier.
And as in the late 1700s, the decision was made with the support of a population that viewed capital punishment, if not favorably, as a necessity. There was an expectation that violence would be met with violence.
The death penalty’s popularity in the United States has eroded over the years, especially in the past two decades. But recent polls show a plurality of Americans still support the notion that capital punishment is justified in at least some cases.
Though Hamilton County residents haven’t been polled on the subject in years, capital murder trials still occur here more frequently than in most counties and local politicians continue to tout their death penalty credentials on the campaign trail.
“There’s a political currency to the death penalty,” said Prejean, who recently visited Cincinnati to speak about the convicted killer who became the basis of her book, “Dead Man Walking.”
“The easiest way to show you’re tough on crime is to be for the death penalty,” she said.
But politicians don’t get elected by taking positions voters don’t like. If the death penalty wasn’t popular here, politicians wouldn’t talk about it so much.
“There’s no question Hamilton County is and definitely was a conservative county,” said Andrew Welsh-Huggins, the author of “No Winners Here Tonight,” a book about capital punishment in Ohio.
“A conservative county is going to elect conservative prosecutors, and they’re going to take their cues from that,” he said.
Hamilton County hasn’t always lived up to its don’t-rock-the-boat conservative reputation. It’s been home to new and sometimes radical progressive ideas over the years, but capital punishment hasn’t been seriously challenged.
No politician in town is more closely identified with the death penalty than Joe Deters, the latest in a long line of Hamilton County prosecutors who have regularly sought capital murder charges.
Deters said he tries to answer the same questions before every murder trial: Is the accused eligible for the death penalty under Ohio law? Does he have the evidence to remove all doubt of innocence? Was the offense so terrible the defendant deserves to die?
If the answer is yes on all counts, he seeks a death sentence. Not because he relishes the thought of an execution, Deters said, but because that’s what the law dictates.
“People in really bad cases want the death penalty,” he said. “There are certain cases that are so hideous they are just evil.”
Deters and his predecessors have argued that Tibbetts and Van Hook are among those cases.
After binging on booze and drugs, Tibbetts beat his wife, Sue Crawford, to death in 1997 with a baseball bat and then went downstairs to kill the only possible witness, his landlord, Fred Hicks. He stabbed Hicks a dozen times.
Van Hook strangled, stabbed and mutilated David Self in Self’s apartment in 1985 after meeting him at a Cincinnati bar frequented by homosexuals. Van Hook later claimed he was mentally unstable and motivated by “homophobic panic.”
The victims’ relatives couldn’t be reached for comment. But after Tibbetts’ trial in 1998, several said they wanted him to die.
“He took a part of my life that I can never get back,” said Crawford’s brother, Bobby. “This is what he deserved.”
Victims’ relatives often feel that way, but it’s up to the prosecutor to decide how aggressively to pursue the ultimate punishment. Deters said he has, in some cases, sought the death penalty even when relatives asked him not to, because the law and the facts of the case demanded it.
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the approach of local prosecutors is the single biggest factor in whether a convicted killer ends up on death row.
In some places, he said, “the death penalty appears to be part of the culture.”
An Enquirer analysis of data from Dunham’s group found Hamilton County’s death row population ranks 22nd out of the 647 counties nationwide that have at least one person on death row. Among U.S. counties with 20 or more inmates on death row, Hamilton County ranks seventh per capita.
What’s happened here over the years is part of a broader trend that has seen death penalty cases become highly concentrated. Less than 1 percent of U.S. counties now account for 40 percent of all death row inmates.
One reason for that disparity is the growing number of states, now 19, that have banned the death penalty. Another is the uneven application of death penalty laws by the prosecutors elected to enforce them.
A county with a strong death penalty proponent, such as Deters, might send killers like Tibbetts or Van Hook to death row, while a prosecutor in another county might be content to seek life without parole, or less.
Franklin County, about 100 miles to the north, has a larger population and more homicides than Hamilton County, but less than half as many inmates on death row with 11. Cuyahoga County, also more populous and more violent than Hamilton County, has 21 death row inmates.
“The law is prosecuted differently depending on who is the elected prosecutor,” said Welsh-Huggins. “Your chances of going to death row depend on where you committed the crime.”
Geography will continue to matter for years to come in death penalty cases, and not just close to home in Ohio. Death rows in Texas and the Deep South remain crowded places, while those in the Northeast are smaller or nonexistent.
But the landscape is beginning to change. Support nationwide for capital punishment has fallen from 80 percent in the mid-1990s to 49 percent today, according to the Pew Research Center, possibly because of some high-profile exonerations and botched executions. In some states, governors have imposed moratoriums on executions while lawmakers consider changing the law.
The Death Penalty Information Center found death sentences nationwide are down from a high of 279 two decades ago to 39 last year. Executions fell from 98 to 23 over the same period.
Hamilton County has seen a decline in death sentences, too, as jurors increasingly recommend sentences of life without parole instead of death. The option, which eliminates the risk of a killer one day walking free, has fundamentally changed the calculus of capital trials.
“That has impacted death sentences across the country,” said Abe Bonowitz, spokesman for Ohioans to Stop Executions. “If you can guarantee the guy is never getting out, why do you have to kill him?”
Sometimes, though, juries and judges still find a reason.
Ohio’s life without parole law didn’t exist when Van Hook was convicted in 1985, but it was on the books when Tibbetts went on trial in 1998. His Hamilton County jury recommended the death penalty anyway.
Deters said that’s fine with him. He said he can’t worry about what other prosecutors do or whether Hamilton County is sending more people to death row than other counties.
He said the solution for those who do worry about it is simple.
“If people don’t want the death penalty, I don’t care,” Deters said. “Pass a law and get rid of it.”