Ohio ACLU Wins State Supreme Court Ruling on Death Penalty Eligibility

Affiliate: ACLU of Ohio
June 1, 2006 12:00 am

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Defendants with Horrific Backgrounds May Be Exempt from Execution

COLUMBUS, OH – The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio today welcomed a landmark ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court saying that a jury cannot discount the background of a defendant when it decides whether to use the death penalty. In the case of State v. Tenace, the Court for the first time reversed a death sentence based on the extraordinarily troubled life of the defendant.

“This is a first,” said ACLU of Ohio Legal Director Jeffrey Gamso. “Never before, in well over two hundred death penalty decisions, has the court acknowledged what the law requires: that a defendant’s history, character, and background can be so horrific that a death sentence cannot fairly be imposed.”

According to the United States Constitution and Ohio’s death penalty statute, if a death penalty defendant has experienced an extraordinarily damaging childhood, these facts must be considered during sentencing. The State Supreme Court upheld that standard in yesterday’s opinion by Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger.

Previously, the Ohio Supreme Court had limited that law, applying it only to cases in which the defendant suffered from serious mental illnesses. The court’s decision yesterday recognized that the law demanded more, and that traumatic childhood alone could justify a sentence of life in prison rather than the death penalty.

“The court did not try to excuse the actions of Troy Matthew Tenace, but took into consideration the truly horrific life he had,” Gamso noted. “As a child, he was taught by his parents to use drugs and commit crimes. He was a victim of terrible abuse. His brother and sister are both in prison.”

In her opinion, Justice Lanzinger called Tenace “doomed.” Another Justice noted that if there was ever a case in which the childhood of a defendant should be considered during sentencing, this case was it.

“Hopefully, this opens the door for others who have been failed by society to receive some sort of recognition for the tremendous obstacles in their life,” Gamso said. “This is not about excusing or minimizing their crimes, but showing compassion and fairness and recognizing that we are the products of our pasts.”

Gamso, who has represented Tenace since 1994, was joined by Dayton attorney Gary Crim in arguing the case before the Ohio Supreme Court.

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