Monday, January 31, 2011

This Week's Voice

Early in the morning on January 27, 1992, the body of Melissa Anne Herstrum was found partially frozen to the ground on the campus of the University of Toledo.  She was a 19-year-old nursing student at the University.  She had been shot 14 times.  Her wrists were abraded.  Her clothes were partially removed.  
That day or maybe the next (I'm doing this mostly from memory), the lead editorial in the Toledo Blade (self-described as "One of America's Great Newspapers," which comes closer to being true with every newspaper that folds) called for the execution of whoever might have killed her.  Although police did not have a suspect at that point, the Blade opined that an insanity defense would be inappropriate.  Next to the editorial was the day's political cartoon:  A drawing of an electric chair.  The caption:
This seat reserved for Melissa Anne Herstrum’s killer.
It's rumored that the cartoon was ordered by the publisher, who (it's also rumored) wrote the editorial himself.
A few days later, Jeffrey Hodge, a UT campus cop, one of the two who first discovered Herstrum's body, was arrested for the murder.  Some 16 months later, as part of a plea bargain that took the death penalty off the table, Hodge conceded in court that he'd killed her.  The Blade was livid.
How dare the prosecutor take death off the table?  How dare the judge allow Hodge to plead to anything less than death?  How dare?
For years, the Blade took every opportunity to publish Herstrum's picture and to excoriate the county prosecutor and, especially, the judge (Judy Lanzinger, now Ohio Supreme Court Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger) for the deal.  Jeffrey Hodge should have been executed.  The Blade was certain.
Hodge was but the most extreme example.  The Blade (unlike it's sister paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) has long been a consistent and enthusiastic supporter of the death penalty.  Also of fair trials, I should add.  The paper's editorial position was clear.
Give 'em the resources they need.  Give 'em a fair trial.  Then convict 'em and kill them ASAP.  Hang 'em high.  And don't worry about the niceties.
And yet, this morning, there was this.
Lurking in the background of these changes in the method of execution are growing concerns that Ohio's death penalty is not applied fairly. Credible studies show that in Ohio, where a capital crime is committed and the race of the offender play a large role in whether prosecutors seek the death penalty.

African-American males accused of a capital offense are much more likely than white males or women of any race to be sentenced to death in Ohio. Alternately, some Ohio counties, largely because of political and economic factors, are less likely than others to seek the death penalty rather than life sentences in prison.

Because of these disparities, the worst offenders often are not on death row. Instead, the residents of Ohio's "Green Mile" are greatly determined by race, money, and geography.
That's the lead editorial in today's paper.  It goes on to cite the concerns expressed in the last couple of weeks by Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer and former Director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections Terry Collins.
OK, the Blade hasn't completely come around.
Justice Pfeifer's suggestion that Ohio eliminate the death penalty goes too far. 
But it does seem to call for a moratorium.
It is reasonable to ask whether Ohio has applied the ultimate penalty fairly and enforced it humanely. If the answer is no, as it appears to be, then the time to debate how to improve the system is now, before anyone else is executed.
From the Blade, that's a sea change. 


  1. (self-described as "One of America's Great Newspapers," which comes closer to being true with every newspaper that folds)

    Now that was good.

    As I remember this, Jeffrey Hodge was parked in his official SUV and let Melissa run for her life, then shot her with his 9mm as she tried to get away. I remember wondering at the time that if I'd been armed and on the scene, if I would have been able to prevent Hodge from killing Melissa. It's likely I wouldn't have, but we'll never know for sure.

    Jeffrey Hodge was a UT cop. His arrest and conviction should have been followed by a major, major shake up in the UT police department, and it didn't. Nothing changed so far as I know. As far as a plea bargain goes, I consider life without possibility of parole (not in a minimum security prison or club fed) to be a worse punishment than death. That said, anyone who wanted to take Jeffrey Hodge out back and shoot him in the head until he was dead, dead and dead would get no objection from me. Some people are just better off dead.

  2. LWOP wasn't part of Ohio law at the time, so it wasn't a plea bargain possibility. The plea deal was for the most that he could get with death off the table. He'll first be up for parole in 2022. It's as close to a certainty as these things can be that he won't get it. And he's not in a minimum security setting.

  3. As the reporter who broke the written confession of Hodge in The Collegian, UT's student newspaper I too, thought the death penalty appropriate for Hodge.
    I still have his handwritten letters to another prisoner in which he confessed his guilt and simply claimed he just didn't know why he killed Herstrum. His only remorse was at being caught and what that would mean to his standing as a police officer and husband.
    Those letters were never publicly disclosed but were the leverage used to take the death penalty off of the table by then Lucas County Prosecutor Anthony Pizza. Hodge only agreed to allocate when confronted with his own writings.
    Why he wasn't sentenced to death was political in nature, coupled with the fact that the murder weapon was never found. Hodge's attorney, Alan Konop was canny enough to negotiate the deal his client eventually received.
    It is still my opinion that Hodge should have been sentenced to death not only for the murder itself, but also for the special position of trust he violated by committing such a heinous crime under the mantle of authority as a peace officer.

    1. The full extent of Hodge's misdeeds prior to the murder hasn't been addressed in most coverage, both current with the fact and subsequently. He set fires on camous that he then reported so he could be first on the scene; made arrests of students after following them from neighboring bars until they were on campus territory. His co-workers were aware of the peculiar ways he treated his wife, controlling her movements at home from his position at work. And he was a willing participant as "queer bait" in a Sunday afternoon series of arrests of gay men on campus, when their behavior, while ill-advised, was unlikely to cause harm or offense to students or faculty.
      Hodge also pursued at least one of the arrested men with a series of harassing phone calls to that man's work and home, and appeared at that man's workplace one afternoon demanding to see his office. Collaborators on the campus newspaper published the names of the six or seven men arrested. The writer of that story was subsequently arrested on charges of burglary and theft.
      I've wondered for some time if his participation in the gay sex sting might have been part of the motive for the events that ended with Melissa Herstrum's death a few months later. Did he feel that his already tenuous masculinity was compromised. In the case of the man he harassed, Hodge could have been responding to suggestions overheard by fellow officers that he was "cute but not carrying much in his pants besides handcuffs".