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US justice rejects death penalty law he wrote

•  State Bar News     updated  2012/02/15 13:00


As a young state senator 30 years ago, Paul Pfeifer helped write Ohio's death penalty law. Today, as the senior member of the state Supreme Court, he's trying to eliminate it.

It's not uncommon for sitting judges to change their mind on the death penalty — U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun famously said in 1994 he would no longer "tinker with the machinery of death" — but Pfeifer may be the only one to argue so ardently against a capital punishment law he himself created, and yet continue to rule on death penalty cases.

"I have concluded that the death sentence makes no sense to me at this point when you can have life without the possibility of parole," Pfeifer said in his most recent public comments, testifying in December in favor a bill to abolish Ohio's law. "I don't see what society gains from that.

After the U.S. Supreme Court declared capital punishment unconstitutional in 1972, states spent several years rewriting their laws. Ohio's first attempt, in 1974, was found unconstitutional, but the second try, when Pfeifer was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was enacted in 1981 and has never been successfully challenged. Lawmakers pledged at the time to draft a law reserved for the most heinous murders.

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