Raymond Tibbetts and Robert Van Hook, whose executions are set for later this year, had one more strike against them: They were convicted of murder in a place that embraces the death penalty like few others in America, reported the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Hamilton County has sent more people to death row and is responsible for more executions than any county in Ohio since capital punishment returned to the state in 1981.
The county has a larger death row population per capita than the home counties of Los Angeles, Miami or San Diego. And it has more people on death row than all but 21 of the more than 3,000 counties in the United States.
“Hamilton County kind of stands out,” said Sister Helen Prejean, an author and anti-death penalty activist.
Tibbetts and Van Hook are among 24 convicted killers from Hamilton County on death row today. Ten others from the county have been executed since the death penalty's return.
The answer is rooted in the county’s culture, politics and history, but also in a tough-on-crime mindset that took hold when Cincinnati was a frontier town.
The first known executions here happened in 1789, when two soldiers who’d deserted Fort Washington were captured and shot by firing squad, according to Charles Greve’s “Centennial History of Cincinnati.” The commander of the fort, John Wilkinson, later explained in a letter that future deserters should be shot and beheaded, lest anyone misunderstand the seriousness of the crime.
“One head chopped off in this way and set upon a pole on the parade might do lasting good in the way of deterring others,” Wilkinson wrote.
Civilian executions, usually by hanging, soon followed, with many taking place at a gallows set up at Fifth and Walnut streets, near what today is Government Square. They often drew a crowd.
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“The execution was public, as all such affairs were at that time, and the people gathered to see it,” Greve wrote of one such hanging. “Excursions were brought into the city and many came as far as fifty miles.”
The executions of Tibbetts and Van Hook by lethal injection would not be such a public spectacle, but they would be every bit as much a Hamilton County production. Their prosecutors and judges made the same call as those who sent Mays to the gallows more than two centuries earlier.
And as in the late 1700s, the decision was made with the support of a population that viewed capital punishment, if not favorably, as a necessity. There was an expectation that violence would be met with violence.
The death penalty’s popularity in the United States has eroded over the years, especially in the past two decades. But recent polls show a plurality of Americans still support the notion that capital punishment is justified in at least some cases.
Though Hamilton County residents haven't been polled on the subject in years, capital murder trials still occur here more frequently than in most counties and local politicians continue to tout their death penalty credentials on the campaign trail.
“There’s a political currency to the death penalty,” said Prejean, who recently visited Cincinnati to speak about the convicted killer who became the basis of her book, "Dead Man Walking."
“The easiest way to show you’re tough on crime is to be for the death penalty,” she said.
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