Racial Justice and the Death Penalty at Stake in Ohio Prosecutor Election

    After choosing in 2017 not to reindict a University of Cincinnati campus police officer for the fatal shooting of a Black man, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters blamed his failure to get a conviction on racism, while imploring white jurors to “see beyond Black and white.”

    In 2015, in the context of an assault case involving Black defendants, Deters said that the reason perpetrators of violence commit such acts is, “there’s no discipline in the homes, they don’t go to school, you know, they live off the government, no personal accountability, and they just beat people up for no reason.”

    Deters has spent 22 yearsnearly half his adult lifeas the elected prosecutor for Hamilton County (Cincinnati). Apart from a period as Ohio State Treasurer, a job for which he ran successfully as a Republican candidate in 1998, he has been Cincinnati’s top prosecutor since 1992.

    That is despite his habit of running head-first into controversies by using local media as a megaphone for off-color comments. In addition to the racially problematic statements above, he once told local news that a rape case where a local defense attorney was the victim was “weak” was because “she shouldn’t be having parties with her clients”—while he was allegedly prosecuting the case on her behalf.

    Unlike a lot of conservative prosecutors, Deters is an extremely savvy politician and has built a political empire in Hamilton County.

    For criminal justice reform veterans, the Hamilton County prosecutor seat has been a focus for yearsbecause Deters has turned Cincinnati into a rare death penalty hotspot above the Mason-Dixon line.

    A 2012 investigation by the Cincinnati Enquirer found that under Deters, Hamilton County had the second-highest per capita death penalty sentencing rate in Ohio. First place went to Clark County, an area with approximately one-sixth of Hamilton County’s population of almost a million residents.

    Unlike a lot of conservative prosecutors, Deters is an extremely savvy politician and has built a political empire in Hamilton County. As Howard Wilkinson, the senior political analyst at WVXU explained, virtually all of the locally elected judges in town had first served as assistant prosecutors under Deters. Deters is also chummy with Alex Triantafilous, the chair of the Hamilton County Republican Party, and Governor Mike DeWinewith whom he closely cooperated in an attempt to treat accidental drug overdoses, including those in which family or friends supplied the substances, like first-degree murder back in 2014, when DeWine was Ohio’s attorney general.

    Unlike almost all other elected prosecutors, Deters has also gone on record in support of marijuana legalization. But that was largely because of political smarts; Deters acknowledged that legalization is “inevitable.”

    Fanon Rucker is running against Deters this year. An African-American Democrat who served as an assistant prosecutor and a local judge for 12 years, Rucker represents a serious challenge to the status quo on matters of local criminal justice in one of Ohio’s biggest cities.

    In seeming anticipation of his candidacy, he left the bench in 2019 to work as an associate attorney at the prestigious Cochran Firm’s Cincinnati branch. Rucker has been endorsed by progressive organizations like the Democracy for America, and the PAC’s website explains how Rucker has pledged to not seek the death penalty, not prosecute nonviolent drug charges, and more.

    While many prosecutor elections are held in off-seasons without a big-ticket national contest, Deters versus Rucker will happen at the same time as President Donald Trump versus former Vice President Joe Biden. Historically conservative, Hamilton County is trending in a more Democrat-friendly direction as of late, but the local population is still almost 70 percent white. That could be tough for Rucker, as 62 percent of white men voters and a majority of white women supported Trump in 2016. Cincinnati has long been known for its large white working class population, which also happens to be the core of Trump’s base.

    On criminal justice reform, Hamilton County voters seem to be pretty much split down the middle, however. In 2018, voters had to make a choice on Issue One, an Ohio ballot initiative that would have made drug possession of any drug a misdemeanor, rather than a felony. It failed by 63 to 37 percent statewide. Yet, in Hamilton County, about 48 percent of voters supported what would have been meaningful reform.

    Incumbent Deters’ statement about white jurors in his county voting to acquit a white cop who killed a Black man based on racial biases feels strangely prophetic in the context of this electoral contest. If Joe Deters keeps his seat, will it be because Hamilton County voters are too white to see beyond their own biases and identity politics? The answer isn’t certain, but Hamilton County’s prosecutor election will be one of the most watched in the country for good reason.



    Photo of Cincinnati by James Snead via Needpix.com/Public Domain

    • Rory is the founding attorney of Fleming Law LLC, an immigration law boutique in Philadelphia. He has worked for a variety of criminal justice and harm reduction nonprofits, including Law Enforcement Action Partnership and Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project, and provided campaign services for over a dozen district attorney campaigns. His articles have appeared in the Atlantic, Slate and many other outlets.

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