September 11, 2011
Has the tide turned in Ohio? At one point, several months ago, Ohio had executed more prisoners in 2011 than any other state. In 2010, Ohio was behind only Texas in the number of executions carried out. Texas has been the most prolific purvey of state-sponsored death since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
Ohio was literally setting the standard for executions nationwide. In 2009, after a brief moratorium following the botched execution of Romel Broom, Ohio was the first state to move from the standard three-drug execution protocol to a single-drug protocol.
Ohio was the second state to replace the sedative sodium thiopental used as an execution drug, currently in short supply, with pentobarbital. Ohio is the only state with a single-drug protocol using only pentobarbital.
That all changed in early July, when U.S. District Court Judge Gregory L. Frost delayed the scheduled execution of death row inmate Kenneth Wayne Smith after finding Ohio enforces some of its execution policies inconsistently.
Judge Frost wrote, “It is the policy of the State of Ohio that the state follows its written execution protocol, except when it does not.” Judge Frost continued, “Sometimes with no physical ramification and sometimes with what has been described as messy if not botched executions.”
The court found that the state failed to have the required medical personnel available, failed to properly document preparation of the execution drugs, or to prepare inmates for lethal injection.
Since then, the Ohio Supreme Court has scheduled two executions for well into 2013 providing additional time to address the concerns with Ohio’s execution protocol. Gov. John Kasich postponed a second execution, this one scheduled for August 16, 2011. The New York Times has suggested that Gov. Kasich’s action “is an admission that Ohio’s management of the death penalty is broken and further proof that the machinery of death cannot be operated responsibly anywhere.”
Ohio is front and center in America’s death penalty debate. The state is a hotbed of prominent politicos who have turned their back on capital punishment. Recently, a number of prominent Ohioans came out publicly in opposition to the death penalty. Earlier this year, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul E. Pfeiffer declared his opposition to the death penalty in an op-ed published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro recently told the Cincinnati Enquirer, “I used to believe that the death penalty was a crime deterrent and cost less than incarcerating someone for 40 years. I know now it does not save money and is not a deterrent to crime.” Petro and Pfeiffer were both members of the legislature in 1981 when Ohio’s death penalty statute was passed.
Last year, Ohio moved more offenders off of death row than were placed on death row. There were eight executions and three commutations. Only seven offenders were sentenced to death statewide. At the current rate it would take 38 years to clear Ohio’s death row. Nationwide the numbers are even more abysmal. There are about 3,400 offenders on death row. It would take 73 years to execute everyone on death row at last year’s execution rate — even without adding another person to death row.
The death penalty is in question, not because some killers do not deserve themselves to die, but rather because the act of execution has become so rare as to indicate the presence of caprice if an offender is executed or fortuity if an offender is not. Neither caprice nor fortuity has a place in the criminal justice system.