Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Ohio Death Penalty Sentencing Process Ruled Constitutional

Ohio’s death penalty sentencing process is different in critical ways from a Florida sentencing scheme struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today. The state’s high court unanimously rejected a Marion County man’s challenge to the Ohio process, which he claimed violated an accused murderer’s constitutional rights.

The ruling affirmed the death penalty of Maurice Mason, who was convicted of the rape and murder of Robbin Dennis in 1993. Mason had won the right to challenge his original death sentence in 2008. When his case went before the Marion County Common Pleas Court in 2016, he argued the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2016 Hurst v. Florida decision, which invalidated that state’s death penalty sentencing process, applies to Ohio. The trial court agreed that Ohio’s scheme was unconstitutional based on Hurst. Marion County prosecutors appealed the decision, and later in 2016, the Third District Court of Appeals reversed the decision and affirmed the death sentence.

In Hurst, the U.S. Supreme Court found Florida’s law violated the right to a jury trial guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment. Writing for the Ohio Supreme Court today, Justice Patrick F. Fischer explained that unlike procedures in Florida and other states, an Ohio jury makes every necessary finding to impose a death sentence, and that satisfies the Sixth Amendment requirements.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Judith L. French and R. Patrick DeWine joined Justice Fischer’s opinion. Sixth District Court of Appeals Judge James D. Jensen, sitting for recused Justice Terrence O’Donnell, and Second District Court of Appeals Judge Michael T. Hall, sitting for recused former Justice William M. O’Neill, also joined the majority opinion.

Justice Sharon L. Kennedy delivered a concurring opinion, in which she wrote that the Ohio Supreme Court’s 2016 State v. Belton decision already determined the that Hurst ruling did not invalidate Ohio’s death penalty sentencing process.

Six Essential Steps in Ohio Death Sentence Process
When a criminal defendant elects a trial by jury, R.C. 2929.03 and R.C. 2929.04 establish the requirements of imposing a death sentence. Justice Fischer wrote there are six essential steps in the process, and he explained how Ohio’s scheme differs from practices in Florida, and how they also differ from Arizona’s, which the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated in its 2002 Ring v. Arizona decision.

To face a death sentence in Ohio, a defendant must be charged with aggravated murder and at least one specification of an aggravating circumstance. Mason was charged with aggravated murder and the aggravating circumstance of committing aggravated murder while committing rape.

Next, Ohio’s prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the aggravated murder and any specification. A jury must find the defendant guilty of both, and a Marion County jury did find Mason guilty of aggravated murder and the rape specification. Once the defendant has been found guilty of both by the jury, the accused will be sentenced either to death or life imprisonment.

At that point, the trial enters the sentencing phase, and a jury is presented with information including presentence-investigation reports, a statement by the offender, evidence of aggravating circumstances that could lead a jury to issue a more severe sentence, and mitigating circumstances that could lead the jury to issue a more lenient sentence. For a jury to select a death sentence, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating factors.

Once the jury finds the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating factors, the jury must recommend a death sentence to the trial judge. The jury in the Mason case believed the state proved its case and recommended that Mason be sentenced to death. The Ohio Supreme Court stated today that unlike Florida and Arizona, an Ohio judge cannot impose a greater sentence than the jury recommended. An Ohio judge can only impose the death sentence if the jury made the findings of both the crime and the specification, and recommended a death sentence.

As the last key step, if the jury recommended a death sentence, the trial judge then independently assesses whether the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating sentences. If the judge agrees with the jury, the judge can impose a death sentence, which Mason received. Unlike the jury, the trial judge must state in an opinion why the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating circumstances.

Florida Law Differs
The Ohio Supreme Court majority found the Florida law differs from the Ohio statutes in some critical areas. The Court stated that the Florida law, like Ohio’s, required the accused to be found guilty of committing murder and an aggravating circumstance. Unlike Ohio, the Florida jury is only required to rule that the accused was guilty of the murder, and the jury does not have to state what aggravated circumstance permits the penalty to be elevated from a life sentence to a death sentence. Under Florida law, the trial judge determines independently that an aggravating circumstance was proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and has the right to impose a death sentence.

“Ohio law, in contrast, requires a jury to find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of at least one aggravating circumstance, R.C. 2929.03(B), before the matter proceeds to the penalty phase, when the jury can recommend a death sentence. Ohio’s scheme differs from Florida’s because Ohio requires the jury to make this specific and critical finding,” the Court stated.

Jury Sentence Not Advisory
Once a jury recommends a death sentence, the trial court’s independent review “safeguards offenders from wayward juries,” the Court stated. The judge can impose the death penalty or can choose to impose a life sentence if the judge finds the mitigating circumstances outweigh the aggravating circumstances. Mason argued that because the Ohio jury “recommends” the sentence and the judge makes an independent finding, the law is identical to Florida. He maintained that structure violates the Sixth Amendment because the jury is not making the ultimate decision whether a defendant should get the death penalty.

Mason also maintained the jury sentence has to be interpreted as advisory because the jury does not have to state in writing why it found the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating circumstances. That means the judge’s conclusions could be completely different than the jury’s, he argued. If that is the case, then it is the judge, not the jury who is imposing the death sentence, he concluded.

The Court stated, though, the Sixth Amendment does not require that a jury state in writing why it chose the death penalty. And because the judge can only authorize a sentence approved by the jury, the constitutional right is not violated.

“Under Ohio’s death-penalty scheme, therefore, trial judges function squarely within the framework of the Sixth Amendment,” the Court concluded.

2017-0200. State v. Mason, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-1462.

Video camera icon View oral argument video of this case.

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

Adobe PDF PDF files may be viewed, printed, and searched using the free Acrobat® Reader
Acrobat Reader is a trademark of Adobe Systems Incorporated.