by Andrew Welsh-Huggins. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009. 248pp. Hardcover. $55.00. ISBN: 9780821418338. Paper: $24.95. ISBN: 9780821418345.
Reviewed by Aaron R.S. Lorenz, Law & Society Program, Ramapo College. Email: alorenz [at] ramapo.edu.
In this book, Associated Press reporter Andrew Welsh-Huggins investigates the history of the death penalty and examines its fairness. Exploring the implementation of the death penalty through a single state, Ohio, Welsh-Huggins juxtaposes Ohio’s moderate Midwestern values with its long history of being one of the country’s most active death penalty states. Welsh-Huggins’ central thesis is that the law as it is currently constructed in Ohio, with intent to punish the state’s worst killers, does not function effectively given that intent. Rather, Ohio’s capital punishment system is often arbitrary and capricious. Welsh-Huggins outlines, in great detail, how capital punishment has evolved in Ohio and argues that the state’s performance of the death penalty does not achieve justice.
Welsh-Huggins, who is a reporter for the Associated Press in Columbus, Ohio, crafts his thesis by combining history and law. While incorporating some “classic” sources on the death penalty – Hugu Adam Bedau, William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, Austin Sarat – Welsh-Huggins maintains a reporter’s objectivity and pens a clear explanation as to why the current death penalty system in Ohio is unfair. This is a book about how Ohio, in many ways, is no different than the rest of the United States in regards to capital punishment: arbitrary.
The book initially addresses notions of justice, what Welsh-Huggins calls “early justice.” It is this first chapter that outlines the history of capital punishment in Ohio. He traces executions from the 19th century which is especially insightful in explaining how Ohio’s current death penalty scheme came about. The specific examples of various executions are especially enjoyable to read. Welsh-Huggins subtly shows that very few changes have been made in Ohio in regards to executions. It is here that his work lays the foundation for the subsequent chapters which combine law, politics, and history.
After providing the 19th century history, Welsh-Huggins moves on to an integral discussion in death penalty circles: the 1972 case of FURMAN v. GEORGIA. Welsh-Huggins is considerably painstaking here in his account of the various cases that led up to FURMAN (ALABAMA v. RUDOLPH and MAXWELL v. BISHOP). His historical accounts are wonderful as he summarizes the FURMAN Court’s opinion on cruel and unusual, arbitrariness, and capriciousness. The FURMAN Court attempted, as Welsh-Huggins notes, to define these terms so [*558] the states could establish fair and just executions.
Instead of moving on to GREGG v. GEORGIA and the impact of that seminal case, Welsh-Huggins explains how the capital punishment debate evolved in Ohio, across other states, and at the national level. This discussion is rich with detail and also symbolic of the contested debate over where the power should lie – state or national level – as well as whether the Court should address the constitutionality of the method of execution.
The middle chapters of the book are equally as valuable as the historical introduction. Welsh-Huggins juxtaposes what occurred in Ohio in the 1970s and 1980s (post-GREGG) with what occurred at the national level, with the Supreme Court being a focal point. This method of using the State of Ohio versus the Federal level is quite effective. He accounts for conversations between police and prosecutors, explains grand jury indictments, addresses the politics of the various governors of Ohio, and explains how the people of Ohio understood the possible issues of inequity, including race. While race in particular is not an issue that Welsh-Huggins spends in an inordinate amount of time on, he does devote a chapter to the issue and notes the persistency of race in regards to the death penalty dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries.
Unlike many books on capital punishment, Welsh-Huggins actually devotes a chapter to what he terms “the bargaining of death.” This chapter is undoubtedly the most valuable chapter in the book. Welsh-Huggins meticulously outlines how various county prosecutors in Ohio decided whether they would seek the death penalty. This area of research is especially valuable to political scientists because it addresses both the politics of the state as well as the role of public opinion. Explaining clearly that the criminal justice system would collapse without plea bargaining, Welsh-Huggins analyzes how plea bargaining affects the goal of the death penalty: “punishing the worst of the worst with the ultimate penalty” (p.96).
Another outstanding chapter and wonderful addition to the field is Welsh-Huggins’ chapter on judges. He looks at the rural and urban relationship with capital punishment and subtly demonstrates the inequity issues that surface. Ohio, like many states in the U.S., has its share of struggling cities, towns, and counties. Welsh-Huggins explains how state and national politics affected Ohio’s death penalty history. The Justice Department’s 2000 analysis of the death penalty system showed bias in various areas, including geography. This fact does not get past Welsh-Huggins, and his work on the issue shows his ability to see that bias, in regards to capital punishment, comes in numerous forms and not simply the classic themes like race or mental capacity.
The final chapters address the fairness of the death penalty in Ohio as well as the future of capital punishment in the state. Welsh-Huggins, quite objectively, explains that the death penalty in Ohio, like in Texas, is most likely not going anywhere soon. While there may be a de facto moratorium on the death penalty in some states, Ohio seems intent on [*559] continuing to use capital punishment regardless of the claims about its unconstitutionality. Welsh-Huggins does note the 8 Ohio cases in which judges have thrown out a death sentence since 1981.
For political scientists who are interested in the general topic of capital punishment, this book provides the basic information helpful as an introduction. What Welsh-Huggins does especially well is juxtapose the state versus national issues that arise in political science and certainly within death penalty debates. The book is heavily weighted on case law, again, at both the state and national levels. For those interested in understanding the politics behind the death penalty in Ohio and beyond, this book is invaluable.
ALABAMA v. RUDOLPH , 375 U.S. 889 (1963).
FURMAN v. GEORGIA, 408 U.S. 238 (1972).
GREGG v. GEORGIA, 428 U.S. 153 (1976).
MAXWELL v. BISHOP, 398 U.S. 262 (1970).
© Copyright 2009 by the author, Aaron R.S. Lorenz.