Two Ohio civil rights organizations have filed suit against the state’s parole board, alleging that the board has an illegal policy of automatically denying parole to anyone who was formerly sentenced to death.

On July 28, 2021, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Ohio Justice & Policy Center sued the Ohio Parole Board on behalf of Patricia Wernert and George Clayton (pictured), both of whom were sentenced to death under a law that was declared unconstitutional in 1978. Neither Wernert nor Clayton committed the murders for which they were sentenced to death. After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Ohio’s death-sentencing statute in Lockett v. Ohio — in part because it did not allow the capital sentencer to consider their lesser involvement in the offense as a reason not to impose the death penalty — both of their death sentences were reduced to life sentences with the possibility of parole after 20 years.

Despite strong re-entry plans, exemplary behavioral records in prison, and participation in community service and rehabilitation programs, both Wernert, who is now 78, and Clayton, who is now 64, have repeatedly been denied parole. The suit argues that the parole board’s “current practice is consistently to deny parole to any individual who was once under a death sentence,” rather than affording them the “meaningful consideration” required by law.

“Under well-settled principles of Ohio law, individuals who are eligible for parole must receive meaningful consideration for parole release,” the suit says. Though Wernert and Clayton are the only named plaintiffs, Ohio Justice & Policy Center executive director David Singleton said the board’s policy affects 52 other former death row prisoners sentenced before 1978.

According to the suit, the parole board has, since at least 2016, denied parole to any person who was previously sentenced to death “regardless of any other factors or individual circumstances, including but not limited to demonstrated rehabilitative progress, lack of threat to the community, reentry plan, time served, age, or prosecutor recommendations.” As a result, the board has effectively increased the sentences imposed on those prisoners: “Although Ms. Wernert’s and Mr. Clayton’s sentences provide for the possibility of parole, the Board’s policy or practice has the practical effect of converting their sentences into life in prison without the possibility of parole.”

The suit asks the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas to declare the policy illegal, enter a permanent injunction requiring the board to cease implementation of the policy, and conduct new hearings for Wernert and Clayton.