Ohio Plans to Restart Executions with Drugs Known to Torture

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Ohio Plans to Restart Executions with Drugs Known to Torture

Protesters gathered Tuesday evening at the Athens County Courthouse. (Photo: Sarah M. Penix/The Post)

After a three-and-a-half year moratorium, Ohio is poised to start executions again with the killing of Ronald Phillips by lethal injection on July 26. It will also mark the beginning of 27 planned executions that will make Ohio one of the most active capital punishment states north of Texas. But Gov. John Kasich can stop this execution spree before it starts.

And here’s a quick reminder of why that’s the only moral course for the governor.

Executions have been halted for more than three years because of the horribly botched execution of Dennis McGuire in January 2014, when witnesses described him appearing in pain, gasping for air, and groaning during the prolonged lethal injection process. Many experts said that situation was the result of using an untested and unproven drug, midazolam. After McGuire’s execution, the state passed a secrecy law so the public cannot know the manufacturer of the drug.

Now Ohio is expected to use the very same drug in the execution of Ronald Phillips, a decision that has led to protests from pharmacologists. In a friend of the court brief, the doctors wrote that midazolam is “unsuitable” for execution “because it is incapable of inducing unconsciousness and cannot prevent the infliction of severe pain.”

If Ohio resumes executions, the likelihood of another botched execution or the killing of an innocent person is high.

Even before McGuire’s execution, Ohio’s record on lethal injection has been appalling. In between May 2006 and September 2009, the state botched the executions of James Clark, Jr., Christopher Newton, and Romell Broom. After each case, the state promised to devise a new process, only to fail again and again. This experience only illustrates that there is no humane way to carry out the death penalty. At the very least, Gov. Kasich should halt executions until the courts have fully reviewed the new drug protocol.

Beyond lethal injections, there are plenty of other reasons to oppose Ohio’s return to executions. Nine people have been exonerated from the state’s death row, and there remains a significant question of how many more innocent people may be facing execution. In 2007, the American Bar Association reviewed Ohio’s death penalty and found that the state failed to meet 93 percent of the basic measures of fairness. Judicial leaders were so concerned about these problems that in 2010, the Ohio Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor created a task force to address these issues. Eventually, the group issued 56 recommendations to improve fairness and help prevent wrongful convictions, but the state legislature has failed to pass nearly all of the reforms.

During his first term in office, Gov. Kasich used his clemency powers to commute five death sentences to life in prison, citing uncertainty about a defendant’s claim of innocence or mental condition. His predecessor, Gov. Ted Strickland, also commuted five death sentences to life in prison because of similar concerns.

Many people are speaking out against Ohio’s death penalty. Family members of murder victims, religious leaders, and corrections officials have all talked about the damage capital punishment does to our society. Several conservative former political leaders, who oversaw executions, have also come out against the death penalty, including Attorney General Jim Petro, Gov. Bob Taft, and State Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeiffer.

If Ohio decides to start executions at this pace, it will be in stark contrast to the rest of the country at a time when death sentences and executions are both at historic lows. Nineteen states have abolished the death penalty altogether while another four states have moratoriums issued by their governors.

If Ohio resumes executions, the likelihood of another botched execution or the killing of an innocent person is high. Given all the problems the state has had, Gov. Kasich should stop the execution of Ronald Phillips and take the lead to impose a permanent moratorium on executions in Ohio.

Mike Brickner

Mike Brickner

Mike Brickner is senior policy director for ACLU Ohio.

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