COLUMBUS, Ohio — Within days of a drug-related slaying in suburban Cleveland, six men were indicted on charges that carried the possibility of a death sentence. Six months later, all had been allowed to plead to lesser charges, including four who received probation and never went to prison.
In short, the men quickly went from facing the possibility of being strapped to a gurney and having 5 grams of pentobarbital injected into their veins, to prison sentences more typical for robbers and thieves.
"It probably was a negotiating tool," said defense attorney Reuben Sheperd, who represented defendant Alex Ford. "You'll be more motivated than you were in other circumstances."
Such scenarios are typical in the county home to Cleveland, where prosecutor Bill Mason pursues dozens of offenders on capital charges each year at added expense to taxpayers and at the risk of some defendants ending up on death row for charges that would be minor elsewhere, even as the number of death penalty prosecutions plummets in Ohio and nationwide, according to an analysis of records by The Associated Press.
Elsewhere in Ohio, prosecutors are pursuing only the most heinous crimes as death penalty cases and are refusing to plea bargain, or are using a 2005 law that allows them to seek life with no chance of parole and never place capital punishment on the table.
Mason denies he uses the death penalty as a negotiating tool but also says he never rules out the possibility of lesser charges as more information about a case comes to light.
The 2010 case in the suburb of Parma cost Cuyahoga County taxpayers more than $120,000 – the price of the experts and attorneys appointed because the cases involved the death penalty.
Defense attorneys have long complained about the high number of capital indictments in Cuyahoga County, a practice that precedes Mason but that he continued after first taking office in 2000. But now one of the state's most conservative and pro-death penalty prosecutors is weighing in.
Joe Deters, prosecutor in Hamilton County, renewed questions about Cuyahoga County's approach during meetings of an Ohio Supreme Court task force. The group, which meets again Thursday , is looking for ways to improve the state's death penalty law.
"To use the death penalty to force a plea bargain, I think it's unethical to do that," Deters said in an interview.
Hamilton County, home to Cincinnati, has sent the most inmates to Ohio's death row – 61 over 30 years – though the county has indicted fewer than 200 people in three decades. Deters doesn't accept plea bargains once he decides to pursue a death penalty case.
Mason says a committee of assistant prosecutors reviews the evidence of each death penalty case and encourages defense attorneys to produce reasons that could weigh against the death penalty.
"When we seek the death penalty it is not to secure a plea bargain, but instead to equally apply the law," Mason said.
Despite the higher number of capital indictments, Mason's record of winning death sentences is no better than other counties, some of them smaller than Cuyahoga, with about 1.3 million residents.
From 2009 to 2011, for example, Cuyahoga County indicted 135 defendants on charges that could result in a death sentence, according to records maintained by Mason's office. Only two of those offenders were sent to death row, including Anthony Sowell, convicted in 2011 of killing 11 women.
The rest either pleaded guilty, usually with the death penalty charges withdrawn, or were convicted but not sentenced to death. In six cases, charges were dismissed.
By contrast, Butler County in southwest Ohio, with 368,000 residents, recorded three death sentences during the same time but indicted just six people on capital charges.
"The proof of guilt in a death penalty case has to be near absolute, not a crap shoot," said Butler County prosecutor Michael Gmoser . In addition, "The case has to shock the conscience of the community," he said.
Other prosecutors and counties have faced similar criticism for high numbers of indictment. In Philadelphia, former district attorney Lynne Abraham was once dubbed "America's deadliest DA" by The New York Times Magazine for her aggressive pursuit of the death penalty. Some African-American groups had criticized her for her death penalty stance.
In Arizona's Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, capital cases were so numerous that in 2007 the state's Supreme Court Chief Justice convened a task force to look at ways "to address the unprecedented number of capital cases awaiting trial" in the county.
Cuyahoga County brings so many death penalty cases that, in a twist on tough-on-crime politics, candidates running for prosecutor promised to vastly reduce the number of indictments. Mason is not running for re-election.
Mason's approach runs counter to a 40-year-old U.S. Supreme Court decision that threw out the country's death penalty laws in part over the arbitrariness of the laws in place at the time, said Ohio state public defender Tim Young.
The risk of someone ending up on death row for a crime that might be a far lesser offense elsewhere "seems like a wildly dangerous use" of the death penalty, Young added.
Just 78 inmates nationally were sentenced to death in 2011, the lowest number since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, and nearly two-thirds lower than the 224 death sentences in 2000.
High numbers of capital charges, and the use of plea bargains in death penalty cases, have been examined in several states by the American Bar Association. The ABA's 2007 review of Ohio's death penalty system also cited Cuyahoga County's high number of indictments.
In Kentucky, the ABA noted that the large number of capital indictments – dozens if not hundreds – compared with death sentences "calls into question as to whether current charging practices ensure the fair, efficient, and effective enforcement of criminal law."
In Tennessee, a 2004 report by the state's Comptroller of the Treasury that examined the law's cost found widespread disparities with how prosecutors used the law, with some treating it as a "bargaining chip" to secure plea bargains. "Meanwhile, defense attorneys must prepare their cases, often without knowing the punishment the prosecutor intends to seek," the report said.