Ohio

Ohio

Ohio Commission to Release Recommendations for Death Penalty Reform

In 2011, the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court appointed a blue-ribbon Commission to review the state's death penalty and to make recommendations for reform. On April 10, the Commission prepared to announce 56 recommendations for changing the death penalty, including:

► Require higher standards for proving guilt if a death sentence is sought (such as DNA evidence)
► Bar the death penalty for those who suffer from “serious mental illness”
► Lessen the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty
► Create a Death Penalty Charging Committee at the Attorney General’s Office to approve capital prosecutions
► Adopt a Racial Justice Act to facilitate inequality claims in Ohio courts.

See all 56 proposed recommendations from the Task Force.

STUDIES: Use of Death Penalty Declining in Ohio

Two recent reports released in Ohio show a decline in the use of the death penalty, with one of the reports raising concerns about the fairness of the system. The number of death-penalty cases filed in Ohio in 2013 was the lowest number in over 30 years. The number of capital indictments was down 28% from 2012 and 63% from 2011, according to a report from Ohioans to Stop Executions, "The Death Lottery: How Race and Geography Determine Who Goes to Ohio's Death Row." Ohio had 4 death sentences in 2013, compared to 24 in 1985. The report noted concerns about arbitrary application of the death penalty, even as the number of cases decreased: "While Ohio’s overall use of the death penalty is slowing, it has become clearer ... that the race of the victim and location of the crime are the most accurate predictors of death sentences," the report stated. Almost 40% of all capital indictments in Ohio come from just one county (Cuyahoga), which represents just 11% of the state's population. Nearly 77% of the executions in the state involved cases where the murder victim was white, despite the fact that generally 66% of murder victims in Ohio are people of color. A report from Ohio's Attorney General Office, "Capital Crimes Annual Report," indicated that 52 inmates have been executed since 1981, while 126 death-row inmates had their sentences reduced or died of natural causes.

Lethal Injection Questions Prompt Official Reviews in Louisiana, Florida, Ohio

Questions about the appropriateness of new lethal injection methods have recently stayed executions in Louisiana and Ohio and caused the Florida Supreme Court to order a hearing prior to the next execution there. In Louisiana, Christopher Sepulvado received a 90-day stay to allow a federal court to determine whether the state's new protocol violates his constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. He was scheduled to be executed on February 5. The Florida Supreme Court ordered a similiar hearing to be held before Paul Howell's scheduled execution on February 26 to examine the state's new protocol. In Ohio, Governor John Kasich ordered an 8-month stay of execution for Gregory Lott so the state can complete a review of its new lethal injection procedure, first used to execute Dennis McGuire on January 16, resulting in gasping and choking sounds from the inmate. The common drug in question in all three states is midazolam, a sedative used as the first drug in a 2- or 3-drug protocol. 

Problems Arise As Ohio Tries New Execution Procedure

On January 16, Ohio carried out the first lethal injection in the U.S. using a new protocol, resulting in a lengthy and disruptive execution. Ohio employed a back-up procedure to execute Dennis McGuire, using midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a painkiller. Witnesses to the execution reported that McGuire snorted, gasped, and struggled during the execution, which took longer than usual for death to occur. Deborah Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School and lethal injection expert, said, “Whether there were choking sounds or it was just snorting, the execution didn’t go the way it was supposed to go.” Anesthesiologists had warned that the new cocktail of drugs could cause a condition called "air hunger," in which the inmate would gasp for air but be unable to absorb oxygen. On January 9, Oklahoma executed Michael Wilson using different drugs, and the inmate on the gurney said, “I feel my whole body burning,” as the drugs began to flow.

Federal Court Reviewing Ohio's Untried Lethal Injection Procedure

On January 10, U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Frost will consider a challenge to an execution procedure in Ohio that has never been used before in the country. Dennis McGuire is scheduled for execution on January 16, and his attorneys are arguing the new drugs could cause a very painful death, saying, "McGuire will experience the agony and terror of air hunger as he struggles to breathe for five minutes after [executioners] intravenously inject him with the execution drugs." The new lethal injection procedure will use midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a painkiller. Judge Frost has heard prior challenges to Ohio's execution procedures and has criticized the state for carrying out haphazard executions and not adequately following its own protocols.

Upcoming Death Penalty Events in 2014

As the new year begins, there are several notable events related to the death penalty likely to occur in the next few months. The first execution of the year is scheduled for January 7 in Florida. The execution of Askari Muhammad had originally been scheduled for December 3, 2013, but was stayed due to a challenge to the state's new execution protocol. The Florida Supreme Court approved the new protocol, and the execution was rescheduled, though legal challenges are continuing in federal court. Ohio has scheduled the execution of Dennis McGuire for January 16, and the state plans to use a lethal injection protocol never tried before in any state. Ohio will use midazolam and hydromorphone, drugs formerly listed in the state's backup procedure. This latest change in Ohio was caused by a shortage of the drug pentobarbital, after restrictions on its use were imposed by its European manufacturer. On January 22, Texas is scheduled to execute Edgar Tamayo, a Mexican citizen who was denied consular access at the time of his arrest, in violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Objections to the execution have been raised by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and by numerous other governments. On March 3, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Hall v. Florida, a challenge to Florida's strict procedure for determining intellectual disability in capital cases. The Court previously ruled that intellectually disabled defendants are barred from execution.

NEW VOICES: Head County Prosecutor Advocates Ending Death Penalty in Ohio

Julia Bates has been the lead prosecutor in Lucas County, Ohio, since 1997. Although committed to following the law, she also believes it is time to repeal capital punishment in the state. She said death penalty cases are “torturous” for those involved, including judges, jurors, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and victims’ families, who are subjected to years of appeals. "It just seems there ought to be a better way,” Mrs. Bates said. Capital cases have sharply declined in Lucas County and in the state over the last few years.  Only 9 individuals were indicted in the state for capital murder charges through July, compared to 159 indictments in 1983. There are no pending capital charges in all of Lucas County. One of the most significant factors contributing to this decline is the alternative sentence of life without parole, which became more available in 2005. Bates said her office is not avoiding death penalty prosecutions, but requires that "there should be no doubt about guilt. The guilt should be absolute. It should be unquestionable." A task force appointed by the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court is considering changes to the death penalty law.

NEW VOICES: Deputy Editor Dissents from Toledo Blade's Support for Death Penalty

Jeff Gerritt is the Deputy Editor of the Toledo Blade, a paper which has supported Ohio's death penalty for years. Disagreeing with the paper's Editor, Gerritt called for repeal of the death penalty in the state, noting the risk of executing the innocent, "Wrongly convicting anyone constitutes a horrible injustice, but executing the wrong person eliminates any chance of reversing the error. Nationwide, more than 140 people awaiting execution have been exonerated. Mistakes are far more likely in cases involving poor defendants, who usually don’t have adequate legal counsel." He also pointed to the racial unfairness of the death penalty: "In Ohio, for example, more than half of the death-sentenced defendants since 1981 have been African-Americans, even though African-Americans make up less than 13 percent of the population. Eighteen African-Americans have been executed in Ohio under the 1981 law — 35 percent of the total." He concluded, "The evidence points to one verdict: Capital punishment should die in Ohio." Read the full op-ed below.

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