On Wednesday, something very rare happened: a police officer was indicted for murder. His name is Ray Tensing, a 25-year-old University of Cincinnati police officer who fatally shot Sam Dubose, an unarmed 43-year-old black man, during a routine traffic stop on July 19. Tensing's own body camera footage provided crucial in convincing a grand jury to indict him, meaning there will definitely be a jury trial. Which raises an interesting question: can Ray Tensing get the death penalty if he's convicted of murdering Sam Dubose?
It's an understandable question, given some of the high-profile death penalty cases that have been in the news lately — Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death, James Holmes may soon meet the same fate, and it's likely to be a real possibility in the Dylann Roof Charleston church shooting case. But all of those cases involved people accused of premeditatedly targeting large groups of people, resulting in multiple deaths.
Basically, the answer is straightforward: Ray Tensing is not eligible for the death penalty in Ohio, which allows it in cases of "aggravated murder." Tensing's charges, one for voluntary manslaughter and one for murder, don't rise to the level necessary for a death sentence — a murder conviction and maximum sentence for Tensing would mean life imprisonment.
The parts of Ohio's statute that would be relevant in Tensing's case state the following preconditions for an aggravated murder charge.
A) No person shall purposely, and with prior calculation and design, cause the death of another or the unlawful termination of another's pregnancy.
B) No person shall purposely cause the death of another or the unlawful termination of another's pregnancy while committing or attempting to commit, or while fleeing immediately after committing or attempting to commit, kidnapping, rape, aggravated arson, arson, aggravated robbery, robbery, aggravated burglary, burglary, trespass in a habitation when a person is present or likely to be present, terrorism, or escape.
Aggravated murder was indeed one of the charges the grand jury could've chosen. But it would've been a very heavy lift for prosecutors, much more so than a standard murder charge — in order to convict Tensing for aggravated murder, a jury would've had to conclude that he'd killed Dubose "with prior calculation and design."
That's a difficult case to make if you're going solely on the basis of what's shown on the body camera video — even as shocking and senseless as the footage appears, they'd need evidence that Tensing thought it out ahead of time.
Consequently, Tensing doesn't have to worry about facing execution, although a life sentence is no small punishment either. He pleaded not guilty to both charges on Friday, and according to NBC News, his attorney claims he was "afraid that he was going to lose his own life" when he fired the fatal shot.
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