about Ohio executions
Ohio's capital punishment system could be under its own death watch as scrutiny
over how the state executes prisoners has led to calls for significant changes
-- if not an outright repeal -- of the death penalty.
Despite the issues plaguing the state's execution process, Ohio officials say
they are certain they are getting this call on life-or-death right.
"I feel that we have a solid protocol, and I know that we have the
professionally trained staff to execute that protocol," Ohio Department of
Rehabilitation and Correction director Gary Mohr told The Plain Dealer. "I have
no reservations with saying that at all."
But Mohr knows there are plenty of people from judges to former prison
officials to anti-death penalty activists who have heavy concerns about the
They question why some criminals land on death row and others do not, whether
the state's execution procedures are legal and whether the system can be
revamped to restore waning public trust.
In just the past few years, Ohio has:
• Botched 1 execution, which had to be postponed, and had 2 others with lengthy
delays, including one in which the inmate, while strapped to the gurney in the
execution chamber, cried out, "This isn't working."
• Under legal duress, switched from a 3-drug concoction to a 1-drug dose for
lethal injection, a change that is the subject of a lawsuit.
• Defended itself in numerous inmate lawsuits questioning whether rights
against cruel and unusual punishment are violated during executions.
• Instituted a moratorium of sorts after a federal judge stayed an execution
until Ohio revises its procedures, a ruling upheld this month by the U.S.
• Been the target of critics who now include a sitting Ohio Supreme Court
justice and 2 former state prisons directors.
• Seen 2 bills introduced in the Republican-controlled General Assembly that
would repeal the death penalty.
Maybe most damning was a scathing order by U.S. District Judge Gregory Frost of
the Southern District of Ohio, who stayed an execution in January because he
said the prison system doesn't follow its own written execution procedures,
making it likely an inmate lawsuit against the state could prevail.
"Ohio has been in a dubious cycle of defending often indefensible conduct,
subsequently reforming its protocol when called on that conduct, and then
failing to follow through on its own reforms," Frost wrote in the Jan. 11, 2012
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, whose office is representing the prison
department in the lawsuit, said he disagreed with Frost but that the state is
nonetheless working to revise its death penalty procedures as instructed.
All of this seems to be feeding growing skepticism about the death penalty not
only here in Ohio, but across the country.
The prevailing thought appears to be siding with caution, especially after some
recent high-profile executions drew national attention: in 2011 a Georgia man
was executed despite his claims of innocence and what supporters called
loopholes in his case; and in 2010 Alabama executed a mentally disabled man.
34 states still have capital punishment, but in recent years, Illinois, New
Mexico and New Jersey have gotten rid of it and Oregon's governor has said he
won't allow another execution while he is in office.
Critics say a state that takes lives needs to be perfect in its assessment of
doing what's right. But the mounting issues surrounding Ohio's capital
punishment hardly inspire assurance that its system always gets it right.
"The death penalty system has to be made 100 % effective and we have to have
the right people make the sure this is perfect, no mistakes allowed," said
Kevin Werner, of Ohioans to Stop Executions. "But you can't make it fair. So,
until we can, you shouldn't do it at all."
The issues raised in Ohio are twofold: first, the court challenges, which Mohr
calls "arduous," and second, why some criminals end up on death row and others
"For every case on death row, if you give me enough time, I can find you a
dozen others equal to it that were never charged with capital punishment," said
Ohio Public Defender Tim Young. "Is that a fair system? You have 88 county
prosecutors and 88 different views on how to approach this."
In the 10-year period between 2002 to 2011, there were 770 capital punishment
indictments in Ohio, with 307 of those in Cuyahoga County, by far the most for
any county. Second was Franklin County, with 107, followed by Hamilton with 34.
Like Cuyahoga, Franklin and Hamilton are densely populated counties with a
major city at its core, Columbus and Cincinnati, respectively, but obviously
different appetites for pursuing death penalty cases.
Young said there isn't a significantly higher rate of violent crime in
Cleveland versus Cincinnati to justify having nearly 10 times as many capital
punishment cases. Furthermore, few of those cases ended in a death penalty
conviction, raising the issue of unusually higher costs for prosecuting capital
cases and whether it is worth it.
Former prisons director Terry Collins oversaw 33 executions during his career
before retiring in 2010. He reminded himself each time that he was doing his
job, following the letter of the law. But Collins now says that with each
execution, he privately harbored concerns that maybe he was about to see an
innocent man put to death.
"I wondered about it every time I left my house to drive down to Lucasville:
did the system get it right?" Collins said, referring to the Southern Ohio
prison the houses the death chamber. "I could only assume it was right, but
there was always doubt."
In 1996, lawmakers allowed for life in prison without parole sentences as an
alternative to the death penalty. Many Ohio death row inmates executed in
recent years were convicted prior to that law change.
Since 1997, the 1st year after the law changed, 356 inmates have been sent to
prison with life without parole sentences, whereas 74 people have been
sentenced to death during that period. There are currently 147 men and 1 woman
on death row.
Collins believes those figures prove that with this option, some inmates on
death row likely would be serving life without parole instead. He also said
life in prison allows the state to correct the low percentage mistake of
"The fact that we have life without parole, if we make a mistake with that we
can rectify it. But you won't get that chance to rectify a mistake with the
death penalty," he said. "I think life without parole is sufficient punishment
and in fact is a harsher punishment in that you have to live out the rest of
your life thinking about what you've done and knowing you're not going
Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer has emerged as the state's
highest-profile critic of the death penalty. Ironic, not only because it is
unusual for a sitting judge to be an activist on a topic that regularly comes
before his court, but also because Pfeifer helped reinstate capital punishment
in 1981 when he was a member of the Ohio Senate.
He blames his own court for going too far in broadening the scope of what
constitutes a death penalty conviction.
The court has lowered the bar, he said, for example, by too broadly defining
kidnapping to raise some murder cases to death penalty-eligible cases.
Pfeifer, a Republican, says he also worries, like Young, that county
prosecutors do not use any uniform practice for determining what cases they
choose to pursue as capital punishment cases, and that there are racial and
"It has become a death lottery depending on where you committed the crime and
depending on the attitude of the local prosecutor," Pfeifer told The Plain
Dealer. "I'm not being critical of a prosecutor's right to choose how to pursue
a case, but there is such a wide differentiation across the state."
Pfeifer said he no longer favors the death penalty and doesn't see how it
"What does it say about us as a society? What does it say about us that we
think we need the death penalty and that locking them up for a lifetime isn't
sufficient?" Pfeifer asked. "I think to a degree we undermine our own moral
Pfeifer in January 2011 urged Gov. John Kasich to end capital punishment, but
the Republican governor responded quickly, reiterating his support for the
Chief Justice Maureen OConnor has taken heed of the concerns of Pfeifer and
others and has appointed a task force to study the death penalty in Ohio. The
task force is expected to come up with recommendations for how to improve the
system. It is unlikely to suggest repealing the death penalty altogether.
One idea already discussed is having a state panel or commission review cases
and recommend when the death penalty should be sought so that there is one
standard being applied across Ohio. The idea is similar to a plan used in
There are also 2 Democratic-sponsored bills in the Ohio legislature calling for
the repeal of the death penalty, Senate Bill 270 and House Bill 160.
The Ohio Prosecutors Association opposes both bills.
Prisons director Mohr was limited in his comments because of the ongoing
lawsuit that has effectively stopped Ohio executions. But he said each person
who is part of the execution team does his or her job with great care.
"Every person involved in an execution I can tell you takes their
responsibility as seriously as they can," he said. "Just think about this,
they're guiding a person through the last hours of his life. That team. . .
does this with dignity and does this with professionalism, and that's a tough
(source: The Plain Dealer)