Report: Broken Promises: How a History of Racial Violence and Bias Shaped Ohio’s Death Penalty

Executive SummaryUp

In January 2024, Ohio lawmakers announced plans to expand the use of the death penalty to permit executions with nitrogen gas, as Alabama had just done a week earlier. But at the same time the Attorney General and the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association are championing this legislation, a bipartisan group of state legislators has introduced a bill to abolish the death penalty based on “significant concerns on who is sentenced to death and how that sentence is carried out.” The competing narratives make it more important than ever for Ohioans to have a meaningful, accurate understanding of how capital punishment is being used, including whether the state has progressed beyond the mistakes of its past. 

Ohio’s Black Laws Demonstrate That from the Beginning, Racial Discrimination Was Baked into the State’s Very Foundations. 

Early 19th century Ohio Black Laws imposed various legal restrictions on the rights and status of Black people in the state, not dissimilar to what would later become Black Codes in many Southern states. As constitutional historian Dr. Stephen Middleton explains, “Although the penal code of Ohio did not explicitly provide for a dual system for handling criminal cases, the Black Laws naturally made race an element in the criminal justice system.”  

Ohio’s 1807 “Negro Evidence Law” prohibited Black people from testifying against white people in court, thus instituting a legal double standard. Articles in African American newspapers from the time reported numerous instances where white assailants attacked Black victims with impunity because there was no legal consequence without a white person who could testify on the victims’ behalf. The state also passed racial restrictions on juries in 1816 and 1831, officially barring Black people from jury service. These laws no longer exist, but modern studies reveal that jury discrimination continues.  

The Overrepresentation of White Victim Cases and Overt Displays of Racism in Capital Trials Demonstrate That Race Continues to Play a Prejudicial Role in Death Sentencing. 

One of the most significant ties between historical death sentencing and the modern use of capital punishment is the preferential valuing of white victims. Multiple Ohio-specific studies have concluded that when a case involves a white victim—especially a white female victim—defendants are more likely to receive a death sentence or be executed. A review of all aggravated murder charges in Hamilton County from January 1992 through August 2017 revealed that prosecutors are 4.54 times more likely to file charges with death penalty eligibility if there is at least one white victim, compared to similarly situated cases without white victims. A separate study of Ohio executions between 1976 and 2014 found that homicides involving white female victims are six times more likely to result in an execution than homicides involving Black male victims. DPIC independently analyzed race of victim data for all 465 death sentences in the state and found that 75% of death sentences were for cases with at least one white victim. For context, most murder victims in the state are Black (66%). 

Black capital defendants have also faced instances of overt racism from jurors, prosecutors, and even their own attorneys. During closing arguments, the prosecuting attorney in Dwight Denson’s trial suggested that if jurors did not sentence him to death, they might as well rename Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood to “Jungle Land,” adding, “Leave it to Dwight Denson. Leave it to people like him.” An attorney for Malik Allah-U-Akbar (tried as Odraye Jones) reiterated false, racialized testimony from an expert witness during closing arguments: “I think it’s a quarter of the…urban [B]lack American youth come up with antisocial personality disorder…. This isn’t a situation you can treat. … You have to put him out of society until it runs its course.”  

As the current debate over the use of the death penalty in Ohio continues, this report provides historical information, context, and data to inform the critical decisions that will follow.

5 Facts To Know About Ohio’s Death PenaltyUp

  1. Historically, Ohioans saw lynchings and capital punishment as interchangeable practices.  
    Many Black men were victims of lynch mobs in the 19th century after being accused of raping a white woman—regardless of whether there was any evidence to support the claims. In multiple instances, members of these mobs stated that they would not have lynched the victims if Ohio’s death penalty laws allowed for them to be legally “punished with death.” Petitions to add the rape of a white woman as a death-eligible offense ultimately failed, though Black men continued to receive lethal punishment from lynch mobs. Even when photos were taken in broad daylight, lynch mob participants rarely faced any legal consequences for their roles in these extrajudicial murders. 


2. Homicides involving white female victims are six times more likely to result in an execution than those involving Black male victims even though 44% of murder victims are Black men.
One of the most persistent forms of racial bias present in capital cases is the race-of-victim effect, shown when cases with at least one white victim disproportionately result in a death sentence. This race-of-victim effect demonstrates one of the strongest ties between the historical application of the death penalty and its use in modern day. Modern statistics reveal the same bias in favor of white victims, and, again, white women in particular, continues today. 

An analysis of Ohio executions between 1976 and 2014 found that the race and gender of the victim play a substantial role in the state’s use of the death penalty. Homicides involving white female victims are six times more likely to result in an execution than homicides involving Black victims. A separate study of all aggravated murder charges in Hamilton County (Cincinnati)—an outlier in its high use of the death penalty—revealed that prosecutors are 4.54 times more likely to seek the death penalty if there is at least one white victim, compared to similarly situated cases without white victims. 

3. Jurors, expert witnesses, and attorneys who made overtly racist statements participated in sentencing Black Ohioans to death. 
While many Black capital defendants face structural and covert forms of racism, even some overt displays of racial bias have gone unchallenged and unaddressed in capital trials. A defense expert in Malik Allah-U-Akbar’s (tried as Odraye Jones) trial diagnosed Mr. Akbar with antisocial personality disorder, and falsely testified that this disorder affects “one to three percent of the general population” but was present in “15 to 25 percent, maybe even 30 percent [of] urban African American males.” Dr. Eisenberg further stated that “the best treatment for the antisocial, if the violations are severe, is to throw them away, lock them up.” In Kevin Keith’s capital trial, the prosecution relied on a forensic analyst who was known to “stretch the truth to satisfy a department” and had referred to her Black coworker as “a n****r in a woodpile” and a “n****r b*tch.” Four seated jurors in Terry Lee Froman’s capital trial indicated that they “agree” or “strongly agree” with the statement “[s]ome races and/or ethnic groups tend to be more violent than others.” The Ohio Supreme Court admitted that at least one of the jurors’ “questionnaire responses indicated that she had racially biased views,” but held that the prosecutor had properly rehabilitated her. 
4. Black youth are overrepresented on Ohio’s death row.
Black youth are overrepresented among those sentenced to death in Ohio. 66% of all Ohio death-sentenced prisoners aged 16 to 20 at the time of their crime were Black. (For context, the national figure is 49%.) Nearly a quarter of all Black people who have received death sentences in the state were 20 years old or younger at the time of their crimes. Extending the analysis to late adolescents, aged 25 and younger, reveals that 53% of all Black people sentenced to death in Ohio were 25 or younger at the time of their crimes. 

Research has shown that Black youth are often perceived as chronologically older and more culpable than white youth of the same age. These biases mean Black children are judged more harshly than their white peers with respect to questions about guilt and punishment. Young defendants are also particularly vulnerable because of the unequal power dynamics between them and the adults with whom they interact in the legal system. Seven of Ohio’s 11 exonerees were age 25 or younger at the time of the crimes for which they were wrongfully convicted. 
5. None of the reforms recommended by a bipartisan task force ten years ago to reduce racial disparities in capital cases have been adopted
In 2011, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio and the President of the Ohio State Bar Association convened a joint task force to review the administration of Ohio’s death penalty. To date, none of the specific recommendations to reduce racial disparities in death penalty cases have been adopted. The recommendations include mandatory specialized trainings for judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to recognize and protect against racial biases; requiring judges to report state actors who act on the basis of race in a capital case; removing death penalty specifications that are disproportionately applied to Black defendants; creating a death penalty charging committee at the Ohio Attorney General’s Office; and enacting legislation allowing for racial disparity claims to be raised and developed in state court through a Racial Justice Act.  

Many of the same people who helped develop and enforce Ohio’s death penalty law have since announced their opposition to the death penalty, citing the absence of reforms to safeguard the rights of the accused. In a recent joint op-ed, former Governor Robert Taft and former state attorneys general Jim Petro and Lee Fisher called Ohio’s death-penalty system “broken, costly and unjust,” and further stated that “the death penalty is not applied fairly. Race and place play an intolerable role in deciding who lives and who dies.” 

Illustrative StoriesUp

Charles “Click” Mitchell  
Estimates of 1,500 to 5,000 people gathered outside the jail where Charles “Click” Mitchell, a 23-year-old Black man, was waiting to be transferred to the state penitentiary. Mr. Mitchell had pled guilty to raping a white woman in Champaign County in June 1897 and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. After the judge publicly lamented that Mr. Mitchell should have received the death penalty, the mob took him from jail to the public square where they brutally beat and hanged him. The New York Times wrote that “There has not and could not be a more inexcusable lynching”—not only because of the brutality involved, but also because it happened in Ohio instead of the Deep South. The Times article concluded by drawing attention to the importance of location: “It would be disgraceful if it were told of a mining camp. But it is told of an old and settled town, fully equipped with schools and churches, which fairly represents the civilization of the Middle West of the United States. In that point of view it is extremely discouraging.”

Ignoring the photographs taken of the lynch mob in broad daylight, an all-white grand jury refused to indict anyone for Mr. Mitchell’s lynching, claiming a lack of evidence. An article in The Dayton Herald wrote that “Urbana citizens have started a movement for a different punishment for rape in this State. An organization will be formed through the State, and a petition to the next Legislature circulated, making death the penalty for the crime.”

Mr. Mitchell was just one of many Black men who received some form of lethal punishment because he was accused of harming a white woman.

Walter Raglin 
A Hamilton County court sentenced Walter Raglin to death for the 1995 murder of a white man in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Even though there had been nine other homicides in the same Cincinnati neighborhood that year, the prosecutor’s office only charged Mr. Raglin, a Black man accused of killing a white man, with the death penalty; the victims in the other homicides were all Black.

He was 18 years old at the time of the crime, and 19 when he was sentenced to death. Like many people on death row, Mr. Raglin suffers from multiple vulnerabilities, including serious mental illness, brain damage, and chronic childhood trauma. In addition to scoring in the 10th percentile on an IQ test—meaning 90% of people his age scored higher—a neuropsychological examination revealed “some real impairment of his brain from repeated injuries and the repeated assaults of the substance abuse which impair his ability to thoughtfully and reasonably and adaptively plan and organize and conduct his behavior.” The evaluation identified Mr. Raglin as having ADHD, personality disorders, coordination conditions, and depression; all indications of late-adolescence neurodiversity.

Mr. Raglin’s sisters testified on his behalf during his sentencing hearing and explained the hardships their family faced after their parents’ divorce. Growing up, Mr. Raglin’s mother spent the family’s money on crack cocaine and would disappear for days and weeks at a time. The family moved often, and their dwellings were usually infested with mice and insects. Mr. Raglin’s mother permitted him to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol starting at 9 years old, and by 10, she regularly ordered him to steal money from people to support her substance use. As a preteen, she had him accompany her to her drug deals, acting as her bodyguard.

While the jury heard some information about Mr. Raglin’s traumatic childhood, the jury did not hear how this trauma impacted Mr. Raglin’s brain development, including his actions and behaviors on the night of the offense. For example, his mother’s alcohol use during her pregnancy with Mr. Raglin increases his risk of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), a form of brain damage that impacts both cognitive and social functioning.? The numerous traumatic brain injuries Mr. Raglin incurred throughout his life may also contribute to the neuropsychological dysfunction revealed by subsequent testing.

The jury also did not hear that the State removed Mr. Raglin from his parents’ custody and placed him in a group home where he was exposed to emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. During these early childhood placements, Mr. Raglin was noted to be “physically very mature for 12” and at one point, he was mistakenly placed in the adult jail.

In 2021, Mr. Raglin’s attorneys filed a motion for a new trial arguing that his conviction and death sentence were the improper product of racial discrimination. The motion cited evidence from a recent study finding that he was five times more likely to be sentenced to death because of his race and the race of the victim in his case. Mr. Raglin remains on death row.

Kevin Keith
Kevin Keith was sentenced to death for a triple homicide in Crawford County in February 1994. Mr. Keith has continuously filed appeals in state and federal courts, arguing the prosecution’s use of eyewitness testimonies and forensic evidence was improper. Mr. Keith argues that the police pursued him as a suspect from the start, using circumstantial evidence and false eyewitnesses testimony to identify Mr. Keith as the perpetrator. Police ignored a surviving victim’s identification of an alternate suspect and a failed identification of Mr. Keith. Experts stated that despite the vague description of a “large Black man,” eyewitnesses routinely identified Mr. Keith due to the obstruction of his facial features and the accompanying options in the lineup. The defense also alleges a Brady violation, in which the prosecution withheld information that diminishes the credibility of the State’s forensic analyst, Michelle Yezzo. Ms. Yezzo’s personnel files indicate that she had been known to “stretch the truth to satisfy a department” and she had referred to her Black coworker as “a n****r in the woodpile” and “n****r b*tch.” Since his conviction, numerous people have called for Mr. Keith to be pardoned, for his sentence to be commuted, or for a new trial. In 2010, Mr. Keith was granted clemency by then-Governor Ted Strickland thirteen days before his scheduled execution, citing questionable evidence in the case. Mr. Keith continues to serve a life sentence in Ohio.